Revenge, name suppression and celebrity justice

The Whaleoil saga [background here and here] has led me to consider why the issue of name suppression for so-called celebrities (or more generally people with an already existing public profile/reputation) gets people so worked up.

There was a shared feeling of outrage when a semi-famous Kiwi “entertainer” was allowed permanent name suppression after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a young woman and there were some demented folk exhibiting very vigilante-like tendencies when Whaleoil outed*** a former Kiwi Olympian previously convicted of a serious crime who was before the courts on further serious charges.

Now Whaleoil himself is before the courts charged with several counts of breaching suppression orders and identifying people subject to a name suppression order. But why is he taking on this crusade?

I came across some answers in a journal article from Crime, Media, Culture, which is published by Sage. The piece, “Naming, shaming and criminal justice: Mass-mediated humiliation as entertainment and punishment”, was written by Steven Kohm from the University of Winnipeg. I can’t link to the article from here as that would breach copyright and the fair access policy of AUT library. However, you can get links from Google Scholar and elsewhere.

The key arguments are as follows:

Shame is a dubious method of applying “justice” to criminals and since the advent of reality TV and forensic porn as entertainment, humiliation as a tool of social control has been amplified through the mass media – and more recently via social media – as a method of both punishment and as a form of voyeuristic and participatory entertainment.

The main focus of the piece is an American show (now off-air) called Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator, which by Kohm’s account is a nasty piece of crap that encouraged vigilantes and voyeurism by chasing down suspected pedophiles. The main methodology of the show was the use of entrapment by private individuals of men who were using chatrooms for sexual release and who were essentially baited into realworld meetings with individuals they thought might be minors.

This is a tough subject to write about because the first thing that happens is that anyone who vaguely disagrees with the vigilantes is instantly accused of supporting child sexual abuse and being “soft” on pedophiles. But this is a simplistic view that builds on unsubstantiated moral panics and dubious data about online predators (all this is well explained in Kohm’s piece with ample references).

Anyway, that’s not the main point of this post though it makes disturbing reading when you realise that the producers of TCP were paying a private vigilante group and directing police sting operations. One target committed suicide when confronted by one of the vigilante mob.

My real purpose here is to shed some light on the Whaleoil situation from a slightly different perspective and I was prompted to do this by comments in a recent post by the legal academic Steven Price in which he poses a very good question:

Which is worse: our name suppression laws, or the media’s coverage of them? [Fact Suppression]

Steve makes the good point that the media tends to lead the outrage in suppression cases by claiming freedom of speech, public interest and open justice as its motivating principles, but that in most cases the coverage is sensationalist, legally suspect and often ill-informed.

Kohm makes the point that this can be explained (at least partially) by the fact that public narratives about crime – led, fed and mastered by the media (both news and entertainment) – operate on a very emotional level “weaving powerful messages about not only the [exaggerated] nature and extent of crime, but also how audiences ought to feel about crime.” (p.189)

So this emotionally-charged narrative has the effect of both structuring and being structured by (that damn dialectic again) the media’s relationship to the criminal justice system. This relationship is both material (collaboration on news stories and “infotainment” shows like Cops, etc) and emotional/ideological.  It breeds the message that crime is out of control and that the police need public (vigilante) help to deal with it. It is the same emotional dialectic of fear and loathing (ignorance) that fuels the terror frame in media coverage of Islam etc.

Certainly (and here’s the link with Whaleoil’s legal dillema) in relation to sexual offences – particularly involving children — emotions run high. And this is the case whether the charges are just allegations or whether they are proven and the perpetrator convicted. Thus we can begin to understand the outrage that is generated when a high-profile offender appears to receive favourable treatment and gets name suppression.

Kohm references a number of incidents where shame and humiliation have been the primary tools of punishment, particularly in the dreadfully warped American context, but these trends are global and certainly we are not immune here, or anywhere else really. As Kohm points out, “shame has taken on new cultural significance in contemporary criminal culture” (p.190), but this is given a boost also by the rise of neo-liberalism and conservative social movements such as truth in sentencing, victim support etc where the motivating emotional ideology is that the system has become soft and ineffectual.

In turn, this is linked into the growing and fairly shallow celebrity culture and the celebrification/celebration of cruelty. Kohm points to the gossip websites TMZ and Perez Hilton, there are many more. What this signifies is the emergence of “humiliation as an entertainment commodity” (p.191).

Now of course, social media opens up this whole world for our participation. I have noticed this trend and wrote about The Witches of Facebook at the beginning of last year and also other media outlets using social media as a way of humiliating subjects. What we’re now seeing is the uptake of this trend by bloggers such as Whaleoil who build their online persona and a web “business” around the whole “gotcha” humiliation/punishment trope.

As Kohm notes this “performance of shame” is in line with popular culture and political shifts (to the right) and “towards expressive and shaming forms of criminal justice in the late 20th century”. (p.192) I also agree with Kohm that this is reflective of a re-emerging Laura Norder cult among politicians and some in the media.

So if the outing of celebrities caught up in deviant crime is part of this new name and shame culture and the media’s both a cause and a vehicle for this, where does that leave us in relation to public interest etc?

This is really a tough question because there is a certain amount of public interest in seeing justice to be done, but at the same time this is itself part of an ideological trope that attempts to justify and uphold the current (imperfect) legal system by making it seem as if criticism is welcomed and acted upon.

But we have to differentiate between public interest and public curiosity and voyeurism. Do we want to see justice done or do we just want to see these celebripricks nutted and humiliated in public?

This is not really Kohm’s territory, but before attempting my own answer, one final dip into CMC. Part of the argument around what appears to be a cultural phenomenon – vigilante justice / naming & shaming – also has commercial roots in the commodification and privatisation of security, surveillance and policing as well as in the commodification of popular culture. One of the accusations thrown at Whaleoil is that he is whoring his URL to push traffic to his site and it must be said he’s done nothing to counter this if you look at this post, you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t begrudge Whaleoil the right to promote his blog and increase traffic, nor indeed to commercialise what he’s doing – I’m sure we’d all like to do that. But is does detract from his moral armour just a little.

Fake News, Crime and Punishment

What we are witnessing with the rise of forensic porn (Criminal Intent:SVU, etc); awful stereotyping on Cops style shows and collaboration between journalists and the police on covering real crime (Crimestoppers, etc) is a pushing of boundaries. According to Kohm such shows (and audience interaction with them):

…pushes the boundaries of postmodern journalism by actively creating the very stories it claims to cover in the name of public interest [adding] a new and ethically perplexing wrinkle to the ‘infotainment’ genre by presenting news as the very stories it has financially and logistically created. (pp.195-6)

This is the liminal space also occupied by blogs and social media. Viewers and readers are also constructing part of this problem when they consume these forenso-porno-commodities and actively participate in the “othering of sexual offenders and myth making about the dynamics of sex offending against children” (p.197).

This is quite relevant when you consider the data that more than 80 per cent of sexual attacks on minors are committed by family members, relatives and close friends, not by strangers.

By participating in the name and shame campaigns (or by tacitly supporting them through supporting Whaleoil in this case) we mark out our own positions as definitively NOT ONE OF THEM. but as members of a “symbolic group ‘us’ united in the fight against ‘them'” (p.197).

But this is troubling in itself. As Kohm discusses in relation to To Catch a Predator, online identities can shift and become magical thinking for those involved. This is particularly worrying when police and private vigilantes use entrapment online. An excellent piece in Vanity Fair in December last year demonstrates how this can go horribly wrong for some people.

After months of prowling Internet chat rooms, posing as the mother of two young daughters, Detective Michele Deery thought she had a live one: “parafling,” a married, middle-aged man who claimed he wanted to have sex with her kids. But was he just playing a twisted game of seduction? Both the policewoman and her target give the author their versions of the truth, in a case that challenges the conventional wisdom about online sexual predators, and blurs the lines among crime, “intent,” and enticement. [A crime of shadows]

So, the line between innocence and guilt may not be so “clear and bright” as the vigilantes think it should be. In this context naming and shaming can also do more harm than good. There is plenty of criminology literature to support this view, I haven’t the time or space to include it here.

So where is the ethical line?

While I think the public interest is paramount, I also think the term can be misused in some situations and a fig leaf for other agendas or ideologies. My concern is that the suppression rules need to be clear, unambiguous, well understood and applied without fear or favour.  It would be instructive to examine the cases (700 in 2008) to see if a disproportionate number are given for reasons of status, etc.

This is my last post for a while, I’m having surgery on my hand and won’t be near a keyboard for a while. I might experiment with some video, but I think I’ve got a good head for radio.

Till then.


*** if you really want to know more try typing some of the following words into a well-known search engine:

high whale suppression another profile oil name

which just goes to show that permanent name suppression on the web is virtually impossible.

2 Responses to Revenge, name suppression and celebrity justice

  1. […] wrote last week on the emotional pull of vigilantism in sex cases, we clearly see that […]

  2. […] We also need to understand the downside risks of naming and shaming as a form of punishment. […]

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