Brian Edwards Media

Hug a Parking Officer Today

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How can you tell it’s winter?  It’s the only time lawyers have their hands in their own pockets.

I was reminded of this hoary old joke by the front-page story in today’s Weekend Herald:

SUSPENDED  The lawyer who billed taxpayers $1 MILLION

Nothing wrong with the story. An Auckland criminal law barrister has received more than $1 million in legal aid payments over the past three years. And she has been suspended by the Legal Services Agency for allegedly over-billing.

But why was the story on the front page of the Weekend Herald and why the banner headline? Because lawyers are one of a group of professions and trades that we love to hate. And because being in tune with popular opinion is a hallmark of commercially successful media. So a story which appears to confirm the increasingly common view that lawyers are bilking the legal aid system is a sitter for front page treatment.

And what makes this particular story even ‘sexier’ is that it’s not about just any old lawyer, it’s about a criminal defence lawyer. You see, deep down in our heart of hearts, we’re not entirely convinced that criminals deserve to have some high-paid brief defend them, least of all with our money. We’re not even entirely convinced that defending the scum of the earth is an honourable calling. This ‘innocent till proven guilty’ stuff is all very well, but how can anyone defend some of these monsters, try to get them off, drag their victims’ reputations  through the mud? ‘How can Judith Ablett-Kerr sleep at night?’ was a commonly asked question after the Weatherston trial.

But lawyers are only one of a number of professions and trades that attract popular prejudice. Here are some others: 

  • Parking Wardens
  • Used-Car Dealers
  • Politicians
  • Journalists
  • Bureaucrats
  • Tow-truck drivers
  • Real Estate Agents

Just being in one of these occupations, which attract widespread public prejudice, means that you are fair game for media attack.  

Here’s a different list: 

  • Firemen
  • Nurses
  • Paramedics
  • Schoolteachers
  • Veterinarians
  • Pharmacists
  • Servicemen and Women

Just being in one of these occupations, which attract widespread public sympathy, means that the media will attack you at their peril.

Before you have opened your mouth in any media interview, a degree of prejudice or sympathy will attach to you according to your occupation.

All of this has very little to do with reason, common sense or fairness. Take one of the most reviled occupations – being a parking officer. I know a bit about parking officers because, a year of so back, they invited me to give a speech to their annual conference in Invercargill. Parking officers. Invercargill. Not the most attractive gig. But I learnt a lot.

Parking officers make a significant contribution to the smooth and safe running of traffic in our towns and cities. They greatly increase our chances of finding a parking space.  They spend much of their time giving advice to and generally helping the general public. Most of us are completely unaware of any of this. But we’re unlikely to forget the parking ticket on our windscreen or the fine we had to pay.

‘Bloody parking officers! Why can’t they get a real job.’

The average parking officer is subjected to sarcasm, verbal abuse and often racist comments every day. You might think it was a proper function of the news media to examine this phenomenon and assess the validity of our attitudes to parking officers. But that is not what happens. Researching my speech, I found that media coverage of parking officers in the press, on television and in radio talk-back programmes was almost exclusively negative. Not only was it OK to disparage and abuse parking officers, it was positively encouraged and approved of by press commentators and radio and television hosts.

None of this should surprise. Reflecting and reinforcing stereotypes is part and parcel of the business of popular journalism. Good for ratings. Good for revenues. Bad for enlightened social discourse.

The one bright spot in all of this is that our collective view is often at odds with our personal experience. We dislike lawyers as a class, but surveys show that most of us think our own lawyer is great. The same is true of other unpopular professions. It’s easier to demonise an anonymous group than an individual you know. 

I was having lunch with friends at Swashbuckler’s Restaurant in Auckland one Sunday when the waitress came over and said, ‘Is that your car being towed away?’

It was. Every negative thought, every pejorative term I’ve ever applied to tow-truck drivers flooded back into my consciousness. ‘Blankety blank bastards!’

‘He just parks them up the road,’ the waitress said. ‘You could chase after him.’

Some hope. But I chased after him anyway. He had just set the car down in the marina car park. I was geared up for a fight.

‘This your car?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s private parking here, you know.’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Yeah well, we’ll forget it this time.’

‘Hey thanks. That’s really great.’

The chips were cold when I got back, but I had a warmer view of tow-truck drivers.

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14 Comments:

  1. Several police officers told this writer that had McKinney been a Republican, there would have been the media feeding frenzy over the incident. Park Domain

  2. Park Domain. Huh?

  3. After your previous blog may I suggest we add authors to the first list and librarians to the second:)

    Personally I have no truck with this demonising or canonising of professions. People are employed to do a job and as long as they do it well that is all I care about. As for Judith Ablett Kerr, I thank the God, in whom you do not believe, for those like her. If ever I were unjustly accused of a crime I would like to know she was fighting for me. Those who believe that those charged with a crime do not deserve the best defence might change their mind if they or one of their loved ones were in the dock.

    Neither do I buy into the notion that all firemen, nurses, etc are wonderful. A quick perusal of any newspaper will reveal as many scumbags amongst those professions as lawyers and parking wardens.

    • After your previous blog may I suggest we add authors to the first list and librarians to the second:)

      Couldn’t agree more with everything you say, Ben. As I said in the post, these are irrational prejudices and that’s probably as true of the good prejudices as the bad.

  4. Another reason to dislike parking wardens is that the ratepayers have to fund them to an annual conference. Frankly I am quite stunned they need one, they have one and what on earth would they need a conference for.
    As an aside did you put your speaking fees into a seperate parking ticket account ?

    • Another reason to dislike parking wardens is that the ratepayers have to fund them to an annual conference.

      Well, it was the NZ Parking Officers Association which ran and, I presume, paid for the conference. Anyway, having a conferrence doesn’t seem to me a very good reason for disliking anyone. They have a great deal to discuss at their annual conference, including parking law, their job conditions and how to deal with the totally irrational contempt in which they are held by so many people. The real reason for that dislike is the selfishness that makes most of us think it’s OK to hog that parking space, regardless of how many other people can’t find a space.

  5. Unfair to compare parking wardens with barristers/lawyers. One’s trying to eke out a meagre existence. and try and get his/her family from Southeast Asia into NZ; the other, blood-sucking leeches who salivate over “rinsing’ hapless unfortunates a la owners of leaky houses. These scum dine out on other people’s misery.

    • These scum dine out on other people’s misery.

      Well, that’s a pretty irrational and unsupportable comment. As it happens, I think being a criminal defence lawyer is one of the most honourable professions you could pursue. If you ever get into trouble with the law, you may come to that conclusion too. One of the reasons why lawyers get this undeserved reputation is that people often need their services at difficult times in their lives, so the “misery” part of what you say is probably correct.

  6. An old lawyer friend of mine once told me that it was 99% of lawyers who got the rest of them a bad name. Having been a court reporter for many years, I see no reason to disagree with him. However, as a journalist, I am clearly a lying, despicable reptile, so my opinion counts for even less than a lawyer’s…

    • An old lawyer friend of mine once told me that it was 99% of lawyers who got the rest of them a bad name.

      I like the fact that it was a lawyer who told you this. I haven’t seen a recent poll, but I think journalists rate slightly higher than lawyers. Though a Law Society friend of mine says that the public’s opinion of lawyers is improving.

  7. “…I was having lunch with friends at Swashbuckler’s Restaurant in Auckland one Sunday when the waitress came over and said, ‘Is that your car being towed away?’…”

    THE quintessential Auckland (and, in the way the waitress nonchalantly mentioned it, Kiwi) sentence.

    • THE quintessential Auckland (and, in the way the waitress nonchalantly mentioned it, Kiwi) sentence.

      Maybe. But I was very grateful to her. I understand this happens regularly outside Swashbucklers.

  8. Statement of disclosure: I am a journalist.

    A few years ago, when I was working as a sub at the Herald, our afternoon shifts started around 3-3.30pm. From 5pm, we could park in the basement (as the advertising reps vacated their parks), but until then, we had to park in the street. Most of us parked about a 10-minute walk away, where you could park for $1 an hour.

    One evening I went to get my car around 5.30pm and, as I approached it, I noticed a ticket under the windscreen wiper. I started thinking “WTF – I know I’ve still got about 20 mins to run”. I looked at the ticket and it said: “Warning: no sign of current warrant”. There was no fine.

    Usually I get my warrant from VTNZ, which reminds you to renew. But my very nice mechanic had got the previous one for me because he noticed it was due when my car went in for a service. As a result, I got no reminder and so, when the parking warden printed that warning and put it under my windscreen wiper, my car was actually close to three months overdue for a warrant.

    I could have got a very, very hefty fine. But instead, a very, very nice parking warden realised it was probably an oversight and chose to point it out instead. If ever that parking warden introduces themself to me, I will most assuredly hug them

    Now, if only more people would hug journalists.

    • Statement of disclosure: I am a journalist.

      Nice story, Ashley. I couldn’t imagine being a parking officer myself. Irate parkers can make their lives a living hell.