There is a reciprocal relationship between crime and the media. For police the media is often an essential aid in solving crimes. On the other hand, the media uses crime reports to sell newspapers and attract listeners and viewers.
Police investigations use the media to alert the public to criminal activity, and to call for witnesses and information about specific cases. Press conferences are sometimes held – especially in cases of missing persons. Police are careful about what details they release to the media, as sensitive information may assist criminals or endanger the public or witnesses.
Crime news offers the media potent content as it is often negative, personal, visual, violent and emotional. As most members of the public don’t experience much crime first hand on a day-to-day basis they rely on the media for information. Yet the media’s crime coverage is highly selective.
Most New Zealanders’ fear of criminal violence far exceeds their actual risk of becoming a victim. Random unprovoked murders or attacks are rare. In many cases of violent crime the victim and offender know each other. People are more likely to drown or be run over than to be murdered; and more likely to injure themselves at home, work or playing sport than to be injured by an assault.
Crime news and court reporting reinforce what the law considers to be good and bad, normal and deviant. The media also highlights unacceptable or abhorrent behaviours which are not always crimes – examples from the early 21st century were boy racers and teenage binge drinking. The media publicises and amplifies community concerns, and also what they perceive to be community concerns.
Aside from driving offences, around half of offences reported to police are property crimes (such as theft, burglary and white-collar crime). The media underreports these, and focuses on the 18% of crime that is violent. This includes assault, domestic violence, robbery, rape and homicide. The most heinous or bizarre murders get the most coverage. For example a stabbing will receive little media attention compared to a man who kills his family.
In 1992 the chairperson of the Victims Task Force, Ann Ballin, outlined her thoughts on the way victims were used by the media: ‘Victims become the meat of stories and frequently are used not only for news, but entertainment value. In this way they are exploited unmercifully. In my judgement a person who is a victim should not be subject to media attention unless that is what they want.’1
The same pattern occurs with sexual offences. A 2003 study of three newspapers found that nine cases accounted for 22% of all reporting on sexual offences. Selective and disproportionate crime coverage, especially of violent crime, when crime rates were falling during the 2000s, raised questions of media ethics. The media can influence public fears about crime and attitudes towards punishment.
In a 1995 survey of 300 randomly selected people in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch most respondents felt that crime and reported crime were increasing. The perception was accurate, as violent crime rates rose until the mid-1990s. Over the 21st century crime rates decreased and police resolved more crimes, and did so more quickly, than in the past. Yet a 2006 study found that fears about public safety had risen since 2001.
Over time what crime was reported, and how it was reported, has varied. In the late 1800s newspapers were the only form of mass media. Murder trials were covered, rape was not. Suicides were reported in detail (suicide was considered to be a crime until 1893 and attempted suicide until 1961). Over the 20th century press reporting of suicide was questioned as it could encourage copycats. The Coroners Act 1988 severely restricted suicide reporting.
For decades sexual crimes were not covered by mainstream newspapers and were almost the exclusive preserve of New Zealand Truth – a tabloid newspaper established in 1905. Over time more conservative newspapers also began to cover sexual offences.
Lawyer and lecturer Judy McGregor noted that after Raymond Ratima killed seven people in Masterton: ‘The increased amplitude of “bad news” correspondingly lifts newspaper sales from casual outlets (as opposed to subscription delivery). Why is this? In addition to the repulsion, horror and fear (and for some titillation) engendered by such a crime, is the need for the reader to be reassured of their essential “goodness” as opposed to the “badness” symbolised by Ratima.’1
As newspaper sales began to fall, and newsrooms were slimmed down, there was a trend toward ‘infotainment’ over the 1990s and 21st century. Mainstream newspapers became more sensationalistic, like their tabloid counterparts. The quantity of crime news also increased. A 2002 study compared the press coverage of crime news between 1992 and 2001 in New Zealand's main newspapers – the Dominion, Evening Post, New Zealand Herald, Otago Daily Times and The Press. Crime news coverage increased across all papers from 16.4% of content in 1992 to 19.6% in 2001. There was little printed about police operations, legislation relating to crime and policing, prisoner rehabilitation or early intervention programmes. A 2008 study of selected lead newspapers around the world showed that New Zealand came third in terms of the quantity of stories on crime and violent deaths.
In 2006 Christchurch newspaper The Press garnered feedback from some 4,600 readers through surveys, focus groups and public meetings. A major complaint was the amount of space given to crime news. Editor Paul Thompson promised ‘a more selective approach to court and crime news, particularly coverage of violence and sexual attack, to avoid giving undue weight to those topics'.2 In 2008, as group executive editor of Fairfax Media, which had purchased The Press, Thompson wrote another editorial in which he justified publishing crime news 'because you, the reader, love this stuff'.3
Editors can influence public attitudes through opinion pieces. In 1961 capital punishment was debated. On the morning of 14 September 1961 the New Zealand Herald’s editorial ‘Death penalty is best deferred’ was followed that afternoon by the Auckland Star’s ‘Abolish and be done with it’ and the Christchurch Star’s ‘Abolish hanging’. On 12 October 1961 Parliament abolished hanging. At the time a survey revealed that two out of three New Zealanders did not favour abolishing capital punishment.
The press sometimes keeps other organisations (government, corporations) and individuals honest and accountable for their actions by publicly exposing wrongful acts. For example in the mid-1990s journalist Philip Kitchin began investigating rumours about police rapes in Rotorua in the 1980s. After intensive investigation he tracked down the victim Louise Nicholas. The Dominion Post and TVNZ broke the story in 2004 and a high-ranking police officer was subsequently convicted for perverting the course of justice.
Under New Zealand law people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Journalists take care when referring to crimes using language such as ‘the accused’ and ‘allegedly’. If they slip up they run the risk of being charged with defamation (ruining someone’s reputation by claiming bad things about them which are untrue). Investigative journalists who allege criminal activity must have evidence to back up their claims.
Among the largest defamation payouts was that awarded to Simunovich Fisheries in 2010. Although the settlement figure was not publicised, the New Zealand Herald and TVNZ are thought to have paid out around $1.5 million and had to issue public apologies after alleging that Simunovich Fisheries had provided false figures when securing government fishing quotas.
Judges may make a suppression order prohibiting publication of names, evidence or other information. Some names are automatically suppressed (such as those of witnesses under 17 years of age, victims of sexual offences and those accused of incest). Restrictions on media are generally put in place to ensure a fair trial and to protect the identities of those involved (usually the victims).
Before the arrival of the internet in the 1990s newspaper editors were gatekeepers of what was published. In the 21st century anyone has the ability to publish information online but they must still comply with the law. Successful cases of defamation and breaches of name suppression based solely on internet publication have occurred in New Zealand. For example in 2010 blogger Cameron Slater was convicted for breaching name suppression orders.
The media sells advertising, and high ratings or readerships mean greater profits. Editors, journalists, and television and radio producers know that there is an appetite for morbid, horrific and macabre news stories. A 2008 study found around 20% of television news stories were about crime. The elevation of certain court cases to daily headline news with live feeds from outside courthouses has led to the phrase ‘trial by media’.
Presenter Paul Holmes pioneered television interviews with crime victims, and victims’ friends and families, in 1989 when he began his half-hour Holmes show. The media also covers celebrities, politicians or sportspeople appearing before the courts – even if the charges are minor.
It is considered to be in the public interest that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. For this reason media access to criminal trials is generally free and open, and court proceedings may be reported in full. The courts and Parliament are the only public institutions that have permanent media galleries.
Cases such as the 2009 trial of Dunedin murderer Clayton Weatherston have been transformed by television cameras. The defendant’s behaviour in the dock made for compulsive viewing. In 2010 artist Liam Gerrard exhibited a portrait of Weatherston in the National Portrait Gallery. Asked about his choice of subject, he explained that he ‘went for the most hated man in the country’.1
If members of the media want to film, record, photograph or sketch a court in session they must make an application in advance through the court registrar. The judge can approve or decline applications and can remove the media at their discretion. Jurors may not be filmed, photographed or identified. During trials jurors must not be interviewed and no comments made by jurors may be reported.
From 1995 to 1998 the use of television cameras in courtrooms was trialled. (Prior to this the only courtroom depictions were artists’ sketches.) The opinions on filming of judges, lawyers, court staff, witnesses, jurors and accused were sought. Most favoured it, noting its educative value. In-court filming was introduced in 1998. There are restrictions:
Filming has only been used for high-profile trials. Most reporting still takes place on the steps outside courts or on nearby footpaths, where there are few restrictions on cameras.
Crime is one of the staples of television drama. The series Hanlon (1985), based on a Dunedin lawyer who practised around 1900, rated highly and sold well overseas. The opening episode, 'In Defence of Minnie Dean', was movie-length at 94 minutes. In the 2010s prime-time evening viewing featured many drama shows about solving crimes.
In the late 1980s non-fiction or ‘reality’ crime television shows arrived. Crimewatch, a show describing crimes and asking the public for leads, first screened in 1987. It sought to gain more details on unsolved cases by presenting information and reconstructions. Information did help police in some cases. The show also gave advice on personal and property safety. The reality show Police Ten 7, which first screened in 2002, follows police around on their beat.
Sensing murder, a television series in which ‘psychics’ tried to solve cold (unsolved) police cases attracted a lot of criticism from groups such as the New Zealand Skeptics. None of these shows has solved any cases. One sceptic put up a potential prize pool of $400,000 if a psychic could prove their abilities. None took up the challenge.
The Broadcasting Standards Authority makes rulings on complaints about the way crime is depicted on television shows and the news. Under the Broadcasting Act 1989 broadcasters must respect the principles of the law and take care when reporting on crimes that details revealed do not encourage copycat crimes. They must also be able to justify broadcasting violence on the news or in dramas.
Graphic domestic-violence and drink-driving commercials have attempted to influence ideas on what is right and wrong. Since the 1980s commercials have pushed messages against crimes such as child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, drink driving and speeding. Research in 2003 showed that for road safety, at least, advertising was effective.
Some criminals enter folklore – people often identify with underdogs up against authority, even if they have done wrong. One of the mythologised is James Mackenzie, who was found with around 1,000 stolen sheep in 1855. Fairlie has a statue of him and his dog on its main street, and the area where he was caught is known as the Mackenzie Country. Artist Trevor Moffitt painted a series on Mackenzie in 1965, and in 1986 he began depicting West Coast mass murderer Stanley Graham.
Trevor Moffitt explained why he chose Stanley Graham as the subject for a series of oil paintings begun in 1986: ‘I felt an empathy for him. Things were stacked up against him. The narrative was important – how Graham was and how his life got out of control. The lessons of the man are still to be learnt – that lack of communication leads to violence in society.’1
In 1962 George Wilder, a small-time car thief and burglar, escaped from New Plymouth Prison – the first of his three breakouts. In total he spent 237 days on the run. The Howard Morrison Quartet wrote a song about him, ‘George the Wilder colonial boy’.
In 2009 another prisoner on the run, William Stewart in Canterbury, carved a note in a wooden desk, addressed to someone he burgled, signing it ‘Billy the Hunted One’. Stewart achieved such notoriety that he inspired a ‘Where’s Billy’ T-shirt, a song and several pages on the Facebook site.
The movie Beyond reasonable doubt (1980) is based on the case of Arthur Allan Thomas, who spent nine years in jail for murders he was later pardoned for. Bad blood (1981) details the 12-day manhunt for Stanley Graham in 1941. Roger Donaldson’s 1982 film Smash palace, set in a car-wrecking yard, sees a petrolhead (car enthusiast) played by Bruno Lawrence kidnap his daughter after the court prevents him from seeing her following the break-up of his marriage. The Peter Jackson film Heavenly creatures (1994) centred on the case of two teenagers, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who murdered Parker’s mother in Christchurch in 1954. Sam Neill’s 1995 documentary Cinema of unease explored the dark themes in many New Zealand movies. Out of the blue (2006) tells the story of the 1993 murders of 13 people by David Gray at Aramoana.
For decades children in Southland were told that if they didn't behave they’d be sent to Minnie Dean, a ‘baby farmer’ (someone who took care of illegitimate children for money). In 1895 she was found guilty of murdering one-year-old Dorothy Carter and hanged – the only woman ever executed in New Zealand.
While some offenders became folk heroes, others were demonised by the press. Peter Ellis, a childcare worker in Christchurch, was accused of sexual abuse in 1991 during a time of media hysteria on the issue. He was convicted on child testimony alone, and was jailed from 1993 to 2002. Some sections of the media have since raised doubts about his conviction. Once an offender is released from jail media interest tends to die down unless there is a campaign to clear a person’s name or to seek a pardon and reparations.
Cases of innocent people being jailed for crimes they did not commit have had very high media profiles. In 1970 Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted of the double murder of Waikato farming couple Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. He spent nine years in jail. Pardoned in 1980, he received $1 million in compensation after it was revealed that police had planted evidence.
Mayhew, Patricia. The New Zealand crime & safety survey, 2006: summary of key findings. Wellington: Ministry of Justice, 2007.
McGregor, Judy. Crime news as prime news in New Zealand’s metropolitan press. Auckland: Legal Research Foundation, 1993.
McGregor, Judy, and Margie Comrie. What’s news? Reclaiming journalism in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2002.
Newbold, Greg. Crime in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2000.
Trans-Tasman poll: crime and the media. Auckland: Research International NZ, 1994.