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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  • Gazza

    Disgraceful conduct by these so-called journos who will undoubtedly claim ‘the public good’ in an attempt to defend defamation. I will wait with interest to see this story develop.

  • oldmanNZ

    in a world were idiots will believe anything on facebook or ,in this case spinoff as facts,
    anyone naming someone to cause harm or bullying should be dealt with the new internet bullying law.
    I see no difference in this case. why is the law not applies.

  • Sally

    Question for Spin-Off. Did they go to the person concerned and get his side of the story?

    • Mark

      I would note that their are no conceivable circumstances where I would discuss anything with the Media,no good can come of it,this is another example that re-enforces my view.

      So I would weather the storm of public opinion,but I have a long memory.

  • symgardiner

    I tend to disagree. I don’t have a problem with someone publishing allegations. However they shouldn’t do so anonymously. Also the NZ court system should be prepared to impose crippling sanctions if it can be shown that the publisher has done so maliciously. Likewise if his employer has chucked him under the bus then they should pay through the nose.
    The key to this is that there needs to be some strong signalling from the courts that defamation is serious and will cost you a fortunate. Not the wet bus ticket signalling that our justice system is renown for.
    I would also add that when media do retractions, I would like to see the retraction proportionate to the story. So if a paper has the whole front page smearing someone and they have to retract, then the whole front page should be used for the retraction. In short there needs to be some real cost when media damage people.

    • Second time around

      I do have a problem with publishing allegations from unnamed sources where the chances that the story can be verified independently and if necessary corrected are about zero. Even if the police prosecuted on the same facts there would be strict name suppression, often retained even if a conviction is achieved. Conversely if the person is an on going molester there could be a public interest in some sort of warning.

      • symgardiner

        Name suppression is another of my dislikes. I struggle to see ANY situation where it is justified for the accused.

        • Second time around

          Conversely I see every reason why an accused should enjoy an unblemished reputation, behind bars if need be, before conviction. Otherwise lazy prosecutors will name and shame instead of actually proving their cases.

          • symgardiner

            Prosecutors need to be careful they don’t taint juries. It would only take one or two cases trashed because an untainted jury couldn’t be picked for a happy balance to be achieved. Name suppression for those accused is a slippery slope. You either need to have blanket suppression for all those accused and blanket removal once someone is convicted… or drop the whole concept. The variable nature of it currently has lead to numerous ‘disappointing’ outcomes. Cunliffe’s lunch date being a classic example.

          • OneTrack

            You have a blanket suppression for all those accused. Job done.

        • Because ACCUSED is an awful lot different to CONVICTED.

  • phronesis

    Journalism is hopelessly corrupt. The word journalist is essentially a synonym for Activist. You can even get a job as a “journalist” with Greenpeace.

    “As our dedicated Investigative Journalist you will use and develop your investigative skills as part of a new team dedicated to uncovering headline making environmental stories from the UK and around the world.

    Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, in order to protect and conserve the environment and promote peace.

    Greenpeace is looking to recruit a talented and ambitious investigative journalist to help us break stories that inform and transform the global environmental debate. We’re building a team of talented investigators tasked with finding the great, untold environmental stories.”


  • metalnwood

    I don’t know any of the background to this but I would like to think that at the very least they have met the people and did not conduct their interviews solely with online people. It only takes a couple people online to have a grudge and pretend to be a couple other virtual people. Then you have four online people complaining.

  • Rebecca

    FWIW, WO’s power will have caused a sudden boost in traffic to that site.

    Summary of impressions: first, it seems there are copies of online conversations seen by adults who confronted him. Difficult to deny if he was the poster in these copied conversations (which ought to be validated,) in which case at best he is a dirty old man. Yuck. Decent grown men don’t need or want to have that sort of conversation with children.

    Second, there are claims involving physical relationship with a vulnerable child who subsequenly developed personal and mental issues that are laid at his door in the article. From afar a reasonable person cannot say much except that clearly she was vulnerable and even a non-physical flirty relationship would be double-yuck.

    Every sort of media needs to follow the mantra that “there are two sides to every story” so even if they were sure of the facts they ought to have given him an opportunity. But that’s a lesser story than the one developed here and the attention that will land on people even if their names are hidden in the article.

    • Crowgirl

      There was also a Metro article where this guy boasted of never wanting to grow up, hanging out with people decades younger than him, and having a teenage girlfriend. It’s not a smoking gun but made the allegations seem more plausible.

      However I do refrain from passing judgement as nothing is proven, and it is poor form to name and shame someone for unproven allegations.

      • Rebecca

        Poor form and actionable if untrue.

        It boils down to whether these journalists did assemble evidence that their claims are true. Trying to plead one of the other defences to defamation is more difficult and expensive, especially once identities are revealed (which will happen) when again and again it turns out that there are more than two sides to the story as other participants paint a different picture. Which is another reason why you always want to seek your target’s response and include it. Now that WO has guaranteed wider publicity, I guess we’ll be finding out.

      • Urbanviper

        I know nothing of the case but being on the sidelines of a few legal cases there is often a bit of truth mixed in with a lot of fiction. It seems to be a strategy of establish one bad thing and all of a sudden all this other stuff looks reasonable. Hard to defend against and in a world where we want everyone to be either guilty or not guilty we struggle with nuance

  • Regan Cunliffe

    This is the same guy who jumped the gun and published a scoop that Julie Christie had resigned from Mediaworks and then had to retract and apologise for being grossly wrong and negligent as a journalist.

    Do we really expect anything less from NZ Herald employees though? This sort of carry on has become par for the course.

    This is the second article of this type that has been sponsored by the media agency MBM.

  • Damon Mudgway

    Cool, so we no longer need to go to the Police to make a criminal complaint, we can just go to The Spinoff. I look forward to seeing their performance in Court.

    • Simo

      These scribblers cant get traction in MSM in any other way, so if 2 plus 3 can get away with breaking the law then they perceive they can cross the line as well

  • axeman

    There is to much of this stuff even the MSM are guilty of it. The named person should sue for all it is worth.

    • Dead right. Defamation/libel is a serious offense in this country.

  • willtin

    By publishing all the information they apparently have (I’m not interested in viewing it myself) I have to wonder if their purpose is to deliberately destroy any possible chance of a conviction under our ‘justice’ system, because I imagine that is what they have achieved.