Brian Edwards Media

The Winehouse Submission – Thoughts on Celebrity Justice

Pic: John Selkirk

Pic: John Selkirk

Pic: John McCombe

Pic: John McCombe

Pic: John Selkirk
Pic: John Selkirk

 

 

 

 

 

 

The issue of ‘celebrity justice’ is in the news again – ‘famous’ Kiwis getting name suppression in criminal trials because publicity for their offending might  cause them ‘unreasonable hardship’. (I put ‘famous’ in quotes because when I was told the names of the defendants in two recent cases, I was none the wiser as to who they were.)

As Phil Taylor demonstrates in an excellent piece in this morning’s Herald, this is a complex question. On the face of it, the principle that we are all equal before the law should apply. The TV star and  the All Black should receive the same treatment from the justice system as everyone else.

I accept this principle. But should ‘the same treatment’ not include the same punishment for the same crime? I would have thought that it should.

Take the Tony Veitch case for example.  Let’s define it as a case of domestic assault. There are thousands of such cases before the New Zealand courts every year. But the names of the vast majority of those offenders will be unknown to you and me. That will be the case even if a report of the trial appeared in the papers. If we don’t know the people already, we quickly forget them and their offence. And if the offending was unrelated to their occupation and did not involve a prison sentence, there is also a reasonable chance that they will have kept their jobs.  

I need not remind you of the glare of publicity that surrounded and continues to surround Tony Veitch and of the damage that publicity did to his reputation, his career and his life. His punishment for the same crime as thousands of other New Zealanders was substantially harsher than theirs. In theory Veitch was treated equally before the law, but in practice he was not.

One could cite dozens of similar cases, including of course Millie Elder, whose every appearance in court is monitored and reported by the news media, though her celebrity is second-hand. Her punishment may be more severe than other P addicts, not only because of the publicity she receives, but because that publicity may itself inhibit her chances of recovery.

But the ‘equal before the law’ argument against name suppression for well-known people is often little more than a rationale for envy and schadenfreude. We may be fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, we may even live vicariously through them, but we love nothing more than to see them fall from grace. Nothing is so reassuring about our heroes than the sight of their feet of clay.

Much of the argument against name suppression for the rich and famous thus centres around the wealth, recognition and privilege we believe their fame has brought them. OK, we say, they’re doing it hard now, but look at the lives they led before. They had it better than the rest of us then; it’s only right they should have it worse now.  The law as social leveller.

It almost sounds reasonable, but though luck is undoubtedly a factor, as it is in most human endeavours, you need talent and dedication to achieve success and lasting fame. There should be no extra punishment for talent and dedication or for the fame and success they bring.

I’m therefore in agreement with the Law Commission’s recommendation that well-known people should continue to be able to gain name suppression in instances when publication of their names would cause ‘extreme hardship’.  

I’ve been a well-known person myself, a celebrity, famous even  – as famous as you can be in Queen Street or Lambton Quay. And I can confirm  that being famous does bring you a lot of good stuff – not just money (there’s less of that than you might think) but better treatment in a whole range of situations and, best of all, admiration, affection and kindness from large numbers of people.

It’s nice and I never complained about the lack of privacy that went with it. Private fame is an oxymoron and  I always understood  that if I broke the law my punishment would be greater than John Doe’s  for the same offence.

That’s probably still the case. If I’m caught drunk-driving, my picture is likely to  appear in  some  newspapers and possibly on the TV news. So I have to be more scrupulous in my behaviour than the average person – or take the consequences.

But they should still be the same consequences as for anyone  else convicted of the same offence. And, without name suppression, they won’t be. That isn’t being equal before the law. That isn’t  fair.

There are some exceptions of course. If I’m convicted of dishonesty or moral turpitude in some form, my name and picture should be in the papers. There’ll be justice in that, since I’ve placed a public premium on my integrity. Hypocrisy is the one unforgivable sin in public life and I’m a bit of a moraliser.  The Graham Capills of this world have little to complain of.

And if I were a pop star I might be arguing against name suppression on the grounds that lack of coverage of the case might cause me (and my publicist) ‘extreme hardship’.  We might  call it  ‘the Winehouse Submission’,  with the defendant insisting to  judge and jury, ‘You know I’m no good.’

But that’s another story.

[Media Celebs JC and BE are reportedly off to Vietnam for three weeks. Their publicist says they will still be responding to comments from the hoi polloi. He refused to name their specific destinations, citing privacy issues.]

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32 Comments:

  1. With the Veitch case, I wonder how much publicity there would have been if he had been charged the day it happened. I suspect a lot less. It was the fact there was a secret agreement, and then a war between the two teams that led to a lot of the publicity IMO.

    • With the Veitch case, I wonder how much publicity there would have been if he had been charged the day it happened. I suspect a lot less.

      You may be right. In that circumstance there might well have been a greater likelihood of a request for name suppression. Had there not been, or had the request been denied, there might well have been less publicity than actually occurred, but the public interest in the case would still have been huge and with it the subsequent publicity.

      I used the Veitch case to illustrate the additional hardship and trauma experienced by any ‘well-known’ person’ charged with a criminal offence. But I entirely accept your point that parties to a case can do a great deal themselves to increase that publicity and increase the hardship and trauma.

  2. David is on the money here. The Veitch case is quite different with cover-ups, a deliberate campaign of leaks and the involvement of professional publicists.

    And while we’re on the subject, I don’t remember the question of name suppression ever arising in this case.

    • David is on the money here. The Veitch case is quite different with cover-ups, a deliberate campaign of leaks and the involvement of professional publicists.

      Correct on all points. But see my reply to David.

      What was absolutely clear was that Veitch was overwhelmed by the prospect and then the fact of being charged and took what I would regard as panic action/s. I would suggest that the sense of panic is greater in well-known or famous people who anticipate the tsunami of publicity that will inevitably follow a criminal charge against them and the subsequent destruction of their reputations and career. The ordinary person isn’t going to be delighted either at being charged with a crime but, other than in particularly heinous and therefore newsworthy cases, the ‘tsunami’ is more likely to be a trickle or nothing at all.

      As I replied to David, I accept that parties to a case can do a great deal themselves to increase the publicity and therefore the hardship and trauma that arise from a criminal charge or the prospect of a criminal charge. Rationality and panic do not go well together.

  3. Brian, all charged live in communities. There is the wider ‘celebrity community’ for the rich and famous but the unknown also has his own community in which to carry on life and does not always have the wherewithal or strength of character to move away from.

    I saw some commentary recently which suggested case suppression rather than name suppression. If and when found guilty is the time to hang someone out to dry perhaps.

    I am not sure that our society is the richer for the sensationalized reporting of court proceedings (Bain/Weatherston/Kahui etc)

    • Brian, all charged live in communities. There is the wider ‘celebrity community’ for the rich and famous but the unknown also has his own community in which to carry on life and does not always have the wherewithal or strength of character to move away from.

      I think what you say is entirely reasonable. There does seem to be an argument for ‘case suppression’ until the verdict has been entered, as you suggest. This would have at least two advantages: it would avoid speculation as to who the accused is, a problem with name suppression, which can lead to innocent people coming under suspicion; and it would prevent people rushing to judgement when they hear that someone has been charged, a real problem given the often lengthy delays in bringing a case to court.

      The difficulty of course is that trials should not be conducted in secret. That goes against everything we believe in in democratice societies and invites corruption and abuse of process.

      I take your point about smaller communities. At the heart of the argument I’ve been trying to make is television. 60 years ago, before we had television, most people would never have seen the inside of a court, let alone watched the proceedings in a trial. Those same people would never have seen even the most well-known people in the flesh. ‘Celebrity’, as we know it today, had not been invented. Yes, there were famous movie stars, but they were remote and unreal. Cinema-goers did not have the same personal relationship, the same emotional investment with them that we have with our local and even foreign television ‘stars ‘today. In New Zealand 60 years ago, senior politicians and some radio broadcasters had familiar voices and their photographs might appear in the papers. But this is very different from the intimacy offered by television, an essentially close-up medium. It is television that has created the cult of personality, with ‘women’s’ magazines and the press riding on its tail.

      So there is a sort of symmetry in all of this. The celebrities whom television, or perhaps now more accurately ‘the mass media’ have created, they also destroy when those celebrities fall from grace. And the destruction is instant. The ‘unreasonble hardship’ which those celebrities experience both before and after conviction is essentially a product of modern technology.

      Your point about local communities knowing that one of their members has been charged with or convicted of a crime, is well made. But, in my submission, the massively wider publication of the celebrity’s offending and the hugely greater public interest in the case increases that hardship many times.

      And of couse, as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

  4. Very complex issue.

    It could be argued that the rich and famous have a built in advantage when it comes to fines for instance. A 3 or 4 hundred dollar fine to someone on the minimum wage is devastating, to a high income lawyer or celeb, it is a pittance. Is this a fair go?

    Brian touches on another point. Surely the price of celebrity is added responsibility (though many of the semi-literate nine day wonders in this post-modern society might not have the intellect to appreciate this) and society is justified in demanding a higher standard of behaviour from those who benefit from it?

    These are not my opinions though I do see some merit in “‘case suppression’ until the verdict has been entered” idea.

    • Very complex issue. It could be argued that the rich and famous have a built in advantage when it comes to fines for instance.

      You’re right, in financial terms they do. And I can see no reason why they should get name suppression in the sort of cases to which this would apply. Indeed, I see no reason for the names of ‘celebrities’ or well-known people to be suppressed other than where publicity would cause them ‘unreasonable hardship’, with the emphais on ‘unreasonable’. That is the litmus test.

      I think there is a real difficulty, inherent in the justice system, where a well-known person is charged with a crime. The view of the general public tends to be that there is no smoke without fire. The period between charge and conviction or acquittal is particularly difficult for the accused. And even a not-guilty verdict is often disregarded. The David Bain case is a classic example.
      There’s no real answer to this, if we believe that justice cannot be administered in private and suppression leads to suspicion falling on other people.

  5. Of course if it is alleged that an offence has been committed in Fiji, as Robin Brooke has discovered, anonymity, not to mention the presumption of innocence, appears goes out of the window. So watch your behaviour in Vietnam as any indiscretions will be widely misreported back in New Zealand.

    I have no quarrel with name suppression where the consequences are out of proportion to the offence. In fact I believe that for certain offences such as rape the accused person’s name should be suppressed in all cases, as happens in the UK, unless a guilty verdict is brought in. For some offences, no matter how innocent the accused, ‘mud sticks’.

    I do think though that our judiciary are a bit free with name suppression and the impression is formed that wealth and celebrity status are the influencing factors. I have not forgotten that American millionaire at the time of the Americas Cup who was not only given name suppression on bringing cannabis in to the country, but was told by the judge to go and enjoy the racing. He should have been treated the same way as any lesser mortal and bunged in a cell until a seat on an aircraft out of the country could have been found.

    I also have to say that in these recent cases of suppression I have found the names of the offenders on the Internet, but have never have heard of any them. One of the penalties of being hoi polloi.

    • Of course if it is alleged that an offence has been committed in Fiji, as Robin Brooke has discovered, anonymity, not to mention the presumption of innocence, appears goes out of the window.

      Right on all counts. I’ll be particularly careful in Vietnam. Can’t speak for Judy though.

  6. “I also have to say that in these recent cases of suppression I have found the names of the offenders on the Internet, but have never have heard of any them. One of the penalties of being hoi polloi.”

    …..and I have to say that I chuckled at this for I am similarly afflicted.

    • “I also have to say that in these recent cases of suppression I have found the names of the offenders on the Internet, but have never have heard of any them. One of the penalties of being hoi polloi.”

      By the way, for years I thought ‘hoi polloi’ meant posh people. And I discovered that so did many other people. Sounds as though that’s what it ought to mean.

  7. Brian I have little sympathy for Tony Veitch, I think he tried to cover up his wrong doing by paying money and when that failed he tried to kill himself to gain sympathy. Many men have made terrible mistakes, owned up to them and taken their punishment on the chin.
    Tony Veitch was never sorry for what he did, he was sorry that it ruined his career and many ordinary wife beaters never get the second chance tony did. name suppression never applied in this case because the guilty party used his influence to suppress the course of justice

    • Brian I have little sympathy for Tony Veitch, I think he tried to cover up his wrong doing by paying money and when that failed he tried to kill himself to gain sympathy. Many men have made terrible mistakes, owned up to them and taken their punishment on the chin.

      I don’t disagree with that. But to be absolutely fair, his partner agreed to the deal at the time. So a sort of contract was formed. None of that excuses his actions or his subsequent conduct which was counterproductive anyway. He got dreadful PR advice, about as dreadful as the advice he may have been given to get PR advice.

  8. …..and I have to say that I chuckled at this for I am similarly afflicted.

    Gee, that’s tough. But, you reckon the kindly judge will continue with your full name suppression?

  9. The celebrity thing is a red herring. If I am in court for some heinous crime (and its this status of crime that we are talking about – its not speeding tickets and the like), then the people who I depend on for income will certainly know about it. They are a small local group of customers and if I lose them I and out of a job.
    Same problem for celebs – they depend on national identity for their income (and I suspect ego in many cases) and if they lose national acceptance they are out of a job also.
    In both cases the result is pretty much the same. I have yet to hear any plausible arguement why celbs – should get any sort of special treatment.

  10. Children, Tony’s name could never be suppressed; he was always going to be stood down by TVNZ. Because the rumours were eddying out faster than a tsunami from its earthquake epicentre. TVNZ staffers, think, they have perfected the art of “Chinese whispers”. But, even the hearing-afflicted could catch their gossip from the excited chattering around the corridors and water coolers.

    Nope, despite the sterling efforts of Tony’s TVNZ masters and minders, his name was always going to bleed out into the public arena. Trying to suppress his name and deed, made as much sense as a dinner host serving up minestrone soup in a kitchen colander.

  11. Hoi polloi (Ancient Greek: οἱ πολλοί), an expression meaning “the many”, or in the strictest sense, “the majority” in Greek, is used in English to denote “the masses” or “the people”, usually in a derogatory sense. Synonyms for “hoi polloi” include “…commoners, great unwashed, minions, multitude, plebeians, proletariat, rabble, rank and file, riffraff, the common people, the herd, the many, the masses, the plebs, the proles, the peons, the working class”.

    • Hoi polloi (Ancient Greek: οἱ πολλοί), an expression meaning “the many”, or in the strictest sense, “the majority” in Greek, is used in English to denote “the masses” or “the people”, usually in a derogatory sense

      Thanks (from Singapore) for the ethmological lesson. I love all those synonyms – so evocative. But the strange thing is that hoi polloi really does sound ‘posh’, rather like hoity toity. You can understand the confusion.

  12. “but to be absolutely fair, his partner agreed to the deal at the time”

    Brian I dont think the secrecy deal and hush money is relevant when dealing with a battered woman. Given the large number of battered women who stay in relationships with violent men, and the emotional and psycological trauma she must have gone through.
    “sign the paper, take the money and keep your mouth shut or Ill break your arms as well”

    • “sign the paper, take the money and keep your mouth shut or Ill break your arms as well”

      I don’t know the facts, but I suspect it wasn’t like that. My guess is that Veitch – for whom I have little sympathy – was the supplicant in this. ‘Please don’t wreck my career. If I give you $100,000 ….’ I may be completely wrong of course.

  13. So a sort of contract was formed.

    An illegal contract. Veitch was a victim of himself, and dreadful advice.

    Since Veitch pleaded guilty, it seems that the people who advised Veitch to do this deal got to keep their parts in this sordid story quiet.

    That doesn’t seem right: Veitch would have been better off if he had taken responsibility for his actions as soon as possible. Who told him not to, and why?

    • An illegal contract.

      I’m not sure why you say the contract was illegal. It was a voluntary agreement between two people. It may not have been sensible or in both parties’ interests, but that does not make it illegal.

      Veith was advised by PR woman Glenda Hughes. The advice appears to have been appalling. Your advice, in your last paragraph, is much better. However, we don’t actually know what advice he was given and whether he took it.

  14. At least we all now have the comfort of knowing that if Mr Veitch commits the offence (as long as its aggravarted assault) three more times he will be locked up for good, courtesy of dear Rodney

    This certainly helps me sleep better at night. (warning, Merv, bit of irony here).

  15. Glenda Hughes will never get another PR job again will she? I would also suggest that Sarah Tetros deafening silence, isnt helping Robin Brookes cause, clearly this is a case where a quick,full apology and conciliation is required

    • I would also suggest that Sarah Tetros deafening silence, isnt helping Robin Brookes cause, clearly this is a case where a quick,full apology and conciliation is required

      I don’t know this person. You may well be right. However, apologies can be dangerous, since they imply acceptance of what you are being accused of and can work against you if the other party takes legal action. I gather (we’re in Singapore) that the girl’s family are intending to take a private prosecution. We do a certain amount of crisis management. Our core advice remains: be straightforward, tell the truth, admit your mistakes. Large corporations are often unwilling to do this, on legal advice.

  16. PS Before I am corrected it should be aggravated injury, not assault.

  17. Glenda Hughes, still doing PR? Wow! Her ineptness in “handling” Veitch’s fallout, rivals the dastardly deed, itself.

    The nails were truly hammered into Veitch’s coffin, after his ignoble TV announcement at the Crowne Plaza. He turned up prim-and-proper in a shiny, immaculate suit. The suit had a sheen, which reflected the harsh glare of the TV lights, which further clinicalised the delivery of his PR-prepared explanation. It was robotic, suggesting a huge disconnect between self-awareness and what the public were expecting/wanting to hear and see. His wife — who was standing behind him — and her “show of support”, by strategically placing her hand on his shoulder — was contrived, coy and cloying. It did nothing to humanise him; rather, it reinforced the public’s growing perception that he was self-serving, sullen and coldly calculating.

    At the end of his delivery, his hasty no-questions retreat, was tantamount to giving the one-finger salute. That’s how damning it was. Well, rather, how bad his PR advice, was. Rotten!

    The PR agent is supposed to function as a saviour; not stand graveside, shovel in-hand.

  18. I’m not sure why you say the contract was illegal.

    I’d say it was illegal, because I believe you can not have a legal contract that agrees on the parties doing something illegal.

    In this case, not taking information on a case of serious assault to the police is an illegal action.

    If there was an actual contract, that would suggest to me that there was a lawyer, and someone advising Veitch to get a lawyer (his agent, some exec at TVNZ?). The lawyer would have know that the agreement was illegal.

    However, we don’t actually know what advice he was given and whether he took it.

    Very good point.

    • I’d say it was illegal, because I believe you can not have a legal contract that agrees on the parties doing something illegal

      There was an agreement between the parties. You may not like the nature or the terms of the agreement but there was nothing illegal about it. The only witnesses to what happened were Veitch and his partner at the time. She chose not to inform the police or lay a complaint and to protect him by claiming her injuries were the result of a fall. So there was no complainant. In these circumstances the police would have found it very difficult indeed to take a prosecution.

  19. If no one actually knows what advice Glenda Hughes gave Veitch, why the criticism. For all you know he may have chosen to ignore what she said. With some of the comments here it would not surprise me if Ms hughes were chatting to a defamation lawyer.

  20. The only witnesses to what happened were Veitch and his partner at the time. She chose not to inform the police or lay a complaint and to protect him by claiming her injuries were the result of a fall. So there was no complainant. In these circumstances the police would have found it very difficult indeed to take a prosecution.

    I will have to check this up. I would hope that an agreement is legal simply because all parties agree to conceal information from the police.

    By that argument, if I witnessed you robbing a bank. And then you and I signed an agreement that I would not take my information to the police in exchange for a cash sum – that would be a legal agreement? If so there is a bank near to my work you could be interested in…

    Just because it is difficult to prove surely doesn’t make something technically legal. At least I hope not.