Whatever happened to giving the accused a fair go?

Oh how lucky we are! Brave media outlets have cast aside the demons denying our right to know. They have published the facts and now we know the truth. Those dreadful protestors were up to murder and mayhem and the police have saved us all from terror and tyranny.

It sounds like a good story, but like most fairytales it’s a fanciful concoction.

The police were clearly upset at the decision of the Solicitor-General to refuse to approve the laying of anti-terror charges against those arrested in paramilitary raids last month.

Police Commissioner Howard Broad politely said he was disappointed, but having staked their reputation on the raids the police were keen to show a sceptical public their actions were justified. The leaks followed within a day but were not published until The Press and its sister paper, the Dominion Post, went to print five days later.

So having failed through legal channels, the leaks paved the way for trial by media.

Despite there being not enough evidence to justify the laying of anti-terror charges, the Dominion Post headlined its selective reportingas The Terrorist Files.

The excited shock-horror reporting that followed reaches a new low for democracy. Firstly, because of the abuse of the right to a fair trial for those arrested, and secondly because of the blatantly misleading information presented to the public.

Ironically, the public are probably further from the truth now than they were a month ago.

The material reported was taken from long, rambling conversations between a small number of the 17 arrested. Key phrases were carefully selected and presented out of context in the most damaging way possible. We were supposed to be shocked and stunned.

The threat to declare war on New Zealand and many of the other quotes so breathlessly reported are classic stupidity and coming from the person they do they are more sad than serious.

Likewise, anyone in court who heard the context and discussion of the so-called threat to assassinate George W. Bush would not have recognised it as the serious threat it was reported to be in newspapers and on television. Similarly with the other so-called threats.

Remember, too, that how a person says something tells a lot about what they mean by it. None of this comes with the titillating tidbits.

The media would have done a much better job if they had printed all of each conversation to give at least a minimal amount of context and it would become clear that these had no more substance than the idle threats made against Helen Clark, John Key or George Bush in homes around the country every night during the TV news.

There never was a credible terror threat or real threat to life, and no amount of carefully selective reporting will change that. The police were wrong in their analysis and wrong in their conclusions.

The people branded as terrorists from day one have now been pilloried by sections of the media as terrorists all over again.

Far from providing accurate, balanced material, the public have been shamefully treated by this titillating presentation of misleading information.

Probably the nadir of the whole sorry saga came with a TV reporter in Wellington who tried to cross- examine one of the defendants as they took part in the hikoi protest outside Parliament.

Someone in our office suggested the episode smacked of the goings-on

in the McCarthyist witch-hunts in America in the 1950s. It’s hard to disagree.

And where were our politicians while all this carry-on was dominating the news? Not a single Labour or National MP or minister spoke out clearly for the rights of those arrested to have a fair trial. The Prime Minister feigned concern but her heart wasn’t in it. There was no room for leadership – the most important priority was not to look weak in the war against terror.

And who is to decide if contempt of court action will be taken against those who breached the right to a fair trial? According to the Solicitor-General, it will be the police who make this decision. In other words, we shouldn’t expect too much to happen too quickly.

Looking ahead, the publication of material from the police raids and its misuse by some media and politicians underlines the dreadful dangeri nherent in the new police powers of surveillance. How many of us would be confident that if the police bugged all our conversationsfor a year they couldn’t produce similar damaging highlights?

We do need an independent inquiry into police operation and the releaseof all surveillance information. But this can only occur after the evidence is tested in court and the accused have had the opportunity to present their side of the story. It’s called giving people a fair go.

Advertisements