When vigilante Witch-Hunters cross the line

By Jock Anderson

On-line vigilante witch-hunting dredged a new low this month when so-called “pop culture” website The Spinoff named a man accused of historic sexual harassment but who had not been charged.

The man immediately lost his job as a radio station host and in followup stories was named in the mainstream media, which also reported that the police wanted anyone with valuable information to come forward.

The man was forced to issue a statement in which he said the allegations published by The Spinoff were – among other things – untrue, defamatory, horrible, stressful and distressing for himself and his family.

Spinoff television editor, and former film projectionist, Alex Casey and Duncan Grieve, a New Zealand Herald television reviewer and publisher of The Spinoff, put together a series of sexual allegations made by numerous women.

The women claimed the behaviour happened primarily when they were under age.

The Spinoff named the man throughout the story but changed all the women’s names to protect their identities. How noble to take such moral high ground…

Why name him but not them?

Regardless of whether the story contained any corroborating or independent evidence to support the women’s allegations – which it didn’t – those responsible took it on themselves to be policemen, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.  

In doing so they condemned a man who had not been charged with any offence but with little chance to defend himself, to public exposure, derision and no doubt also hatred and contempt.

Why and for what purpose?

If this is an example of what a mutually congratulatory chums’ club of self-styled elitist scribblers think is heroic cutting-edge public-good journalism, then let the knife fall on their necks.

It is not journalism, despite fawning hoorahs from those quick to sideline judgment, balance, fair play and a respect for the law.

In the event – for arguments sake – any formal complaint is made against this man and is investigated by the police and he is charged, how can he expect a fair trial in the face of such widespread public condemnation?

Supposing this man is charged and put on trial where his accusers are cross-examined and he is ultimately found not guilty. That won’t undo the damage he will have suffered.

To accuse a named person of what is effectively indecencies with under-age girls is to deprive that person of their rights in law. It is bullying and contemptuous of the legal system.

Whatever Alex Casey and Duncan Greive may think of him, the man they named was entitled to expect some decency and fair play.

Or is that not what this sort of online publishing is about?

It is a sign of slipping standards and poor judgment that mainstream media also chose to name the man, apparently solely on the basis of unsubstantiated online allegations.

This is the same mainstream media which all too often tells readers it has “chosen” not to name someone, or refers to them only as Jack or Jill, presumably in exchange for some juicy anonymous quotes from folk who might not be averse to gilding the lily. How would you know?

Under the heading “Trial by Media”, and noting that lawyers had been called in,  New Zealand Herald media columnist John Drinnan reckoned “the coverage raises issues over the growing trend towards trial by social media.”

Mr Drinnan, who did not name the man in his column, said there was a risk that people “might form conclusions based only on the allegations in the article.”

Apparently several journalists and commentators thought The Spinoff report was an example of good journalism – with Otago law professor Andrew Geddis chastising Mr Drinnan for questioning it.

Is there worse to come?

Footnote 1: Who is The Spinoff?

Contributors to The Spinoff include Steve Braunias, Calum Henderson, Toby Manhire, Catherine McGregor, Fraser McGregor, Don Rowe, Scotty Stevenson, Jose Barbosa and Tim Murphy – the latter a former editor in chief of the New Zealand Herald.

In these circumstances, would Mr Murphy have published the man’s name in the New Zealand Herald? And if so, why?

Footnote 2: Duncan Greive’s Intentions

“We intend to create an environment which puts experienced writers alongside the next generation, to encourage mentoring and professional development and generally try to do some of the things which have gotten much harder to do in magazines and newsrooms lately…” Source: The Spinoff website September 10, 2015. 

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.