Name suppression for the few

I have little in common with Cameron Slater but I have sympathy for his campaign to have the law changed to make it harder for those convicted to avoid the public glare from their offending.

There has been a long history of name suppression given for high-profile pillars of the community and public humiliation for everyone else. The justification usually given by judges is that because a person has a high profile the negative effect of public exposure would outweigh the gravity of the offence. The other common reason given is to protect the victim or the family members of the offender.

Arguing these points of course is much easier for the community pillars who can usually afford an experienced barrister to present their case for them.

Two weeks ago Judge Grant Fraser awarded permanent name suppression to a Manawatu man convicted after 300,000 pornographic images, including child pornography and pictures of sexual abuse, were found on his computer. He had been charged with possession and distribution of illegal images after a criminal investigation in the US found one of the trails led to Palmerston North.

One of the reasons the judge gave for granting permanent name suppression was because he felt the man was not a threat in New Zealand because the pictures were of abuse victims from overseas. How the judge made that illogical connection is unclear but he evidently saw it as offending on the light side. So it was permanent name suppression and four months home detention as the penalty.

But in December the same judge refused name suppression to a 25-year-old convicted of having objectionable images of child pornography in his possession. At that time the judge said the images “invite the abuse and exploitation of children, who are defenceless, for the gratification of you and other like-minded people”.

Is there a double standard here? Of course.

The bulk of our judges come from a small coterie who attended private schools or state schools in high income areas. Their empathy extends more easily to their own while less well connected offenders get the full force of community contempt expressed through the judiciary. So often it smacks of the boys club looking after each other.

Justifications for suppression are understandable but usually unjustified. If a person has a high profile there will be a greater impact on them and their family but isn’t this justice being seen to be done? If they suffer more as a result then tough.

Adding to the problem is that name suppression in a country as small as New Zealand for high-profile offenders is close to meaningless.

Recently it was reported a former MP from the top half of the South Island was charged with sexual assault on a teenager. I wasn’t particularly interested to know who but a couple of nights ago the man’s name emerged in a dinner conversation with a visitor. Anyone wanting to find out has surely done so by now.

When a person charged doesn’t have a high profile another insidious effect can occur. Name suppression can cast a pall over an entire group such as recently when a teacher on Auckland’s North Shore appeared in court on sexual offences. Most male teachers in the area will feel uncomfortable till name suppression is lifted.

So what is the point of suppression anyway? High profile offenders such as sportspeople or celebrities these days hire public relations agents who advise the staging of a fulsome public apology, preferably with a few tears or at least a choking voice, and public absolution will follow – as it does. Witness Tony Veitch.

If I had a reservation about removing name suppression for high-profile offenders it would be that important news would be further subverted by tabloid trivia. Just look at the braindead decision at Television New Zealand to cancel an interview with the Prime Minister on Close Up last week in favour of a fulsome televised apology by a former All Black for groping a teenager in Fiji. This was despite John Key’s major announcement to parliament of far-reaching tax reforms.

Name suppression to protect the victims or family members of an offender are more worthy of consideration and can only be judged on their individual merits. Convictions for incest without name suppression for example would inevitably rebound heavily on the victim.  It is surely cases such as these that the suppression guidelines were designed to fit rather than protecting sensitivities in an old boys network.

Most of the Manawatu will now know the name of the Palmerston North community pillar. His wife and family are already suffering. Name suppression will not save them hurt and embarrassment. They too are victims of crime and deserve support and assistance to help cope.

ENDS

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