Judith Collins – poor, poor pitiful me. Good news! There is no news

The National’s police minister is crying foul about negative coverage of the cops in the New Zealand media. I’m sorry Judith, but this is pathetic on your part.

The cops have also stopped giving information about routine crime to the Gisborne Herald. Ostensibly so that the city’s reputation doesn’t suffer from over-reporting of minor crime.

What an interesting juxtaposition.

I was on The Wire today talking about this.


Gisborne Herald editor Jeremy Muir said that the police ban on supplying information to the paper was like something “straight out of a Communist handbook”. I’m not sure which handbook Mr Muir is referring to, but I’ve checked my extensive library of such materials and I can’t find a reference that supports this claim.

But, Muir is right that the effect of the policy change will further entrench the news media’s role as a “propaganda mouthpiece” for the cops.

I say ‘further entrench’ because the news media is effectively such a mouthpiece already. That’s why Judith Collins’ comments are so ill-considered and actually counter-productive for the National-ACT government which relies on the news media to promote its love affair with Laura Norder.

Conservative politicians (including those in the Labour Party) benefit from a climate of fear in the community. If public perceptions that crime is out of control are allowed to fester and an ill-founded fear of crime is established as a ‘common sense’ idea then it is easier for politicians and the cops to argue for more stuff – guns, tazers prisons, staff and increased powers of search, arrest and surveillance – even when the actual crime figures don’t support such arguments.

I have long argued that the news media’s obsession with crime reporting is unhealthy; but do you remember just a few months ago when high-ranking cops were clamouring for more “name and shame” coverage of drunk-drivers and other petty criminals in the news?

This is the “symbiotic” relationship that editors like Jeremy Muir and others say is what they want.Often there is benefit to both sides – an interest is served in each case. The news media fills the newshole and remains profitable – crime is cheap to cover; and the police get their sympathetic hearing and promote their efforts to ‘make society safer’.

But the confused and confusing justifications put forward in this debate do little to shed light on the issue; rather they just generate more wasted heat. Take this line from Muir’s Gisbone Herald editorial on the topic:

In the debate over media coverage of crime and the effect it has on perceptions of crime, it is important to differentiate between media.

Many studies do not separate violent television drama or crime shows, which have been found to have a greater influence on fear of crime than news coverage.

It is also important to have this debate.

Gisborne police have issued a decree that they will no longer report a lot of the crime going on in our communities.

But proper analysis, informed by the significant body of research on this topic, would lead to better reporting policies that would benefit everyone.

The debate itself will also leave people with a better appreciation of what influences their personal safety concerns, and whether those might be overblown.

The relationship between fear of crime and mass media is difficult to pin down — do people fear crime because they see a lot of it on television, or does television provide lots of footage about crimes because people fear crime and want to see what’s going on?

A point made in much of the research is that the heavy media coverage of violent crime skews perceptions of the risks associated with crime — which seems to argue for more reporting of minor crimes.

Another is that it is in the public interest to report crime in context.

For example, regular reporting of burglaries could be accompanied by a monthly analysis of burglary trends in different areas, perhaps compared to trends elsewhere, along with information about the police success rate in solving property crimes and tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

While it is useful for police to communicate effectively with media, reporters must have a good knowledge of media law and crime-reporting guidelines. They should also examine the complex nature of offending, as well as crime prevention and justice.

Considering all the research on this, it is nonsensical for police to drive media policy based on gut feelings and a flimsy survey.

What does Mr Muir actually want?

He asks an important question:

Do people fear crime because they see a lot of it on television, or does television provide a lot of footage about crimes because people fear crime and want to see what’s going on?

But, he does not provide an answer. Perhaps it’s not surprising though: this is a conundrum, wrapped in a paradox and stuffed up the arse of an Enigma.

The relationship between the reporting of crime, perceptions of crime and police ‘efforts’ to ‘do away’ with criminal behaviour is complex and the motivations of both sides are not so easy to tease out. Have you ever stuck your head or your hand up the arse of an Enigma? It will take more than a forensic colonoscopy to sort out this issue.

There is no doubt that media coverage of crime and the dramatisation of what I call ‘forensic pornography’ on shows such as CSI:SVU and so on does play on people’s minds and does add to the sum of irrational fear. But this is a broader cultural and psychogical issue.

the real issue is media generation of “moral panics“:

The media act as agents and conductors of moral indignation – they create media ‘fantasies’ or a criminal ‘hyper-reality’ of produced and consumed images (Baudrillard). They create ‘social censure’.

They investigate, muck rake then point the finger via gross cases that challenge the publics tolerance – scapegoating The effect is to create disquiet, worry, fear and anxiety – then a desire for security, for order to be returned. This is their constructed reality. So is the corollary of a mythical law abiding and orderly past – to return to and envy.

Amplification raises the tension demanding release by authoritarian measures, law and order, swift justice and harsh punishment
A public end up calling for their own repression, they desire and demand ‘get tough’ action created by panics
The media can quickly move on to other vulnerable targets.
[MediaMonkey – Scrib’d]

No doubt media executives in both news and drama would argue that by covering crime and making forensic porn they are merely catering to a public need. That is production is driven by audience demand for this stuff.

And normally we might think that the cops welcome coverage because (as noted above) by coating their message in Laura Norder’s heady musk they arouse public sentiment and therefore support for what they do.

So why then would Judith Collins tazer her own arguments with her comments this week that the news media actually damages the reputation of police through negative coverage?

“I think it’s very important to acknowledge that over the last decade or so there have been numerous attacks (in the media) on the police. There have been the reports into police conduct, all those sorts of things, none of which have actually encouraged people to increase their respect for the police.”

[Collins: Media to blame for fall in police respect, NZ Herald]

Numerous attacks on the police by the media. Isn’t that actually a good thing? If we look at what the minister is talking about, we could argue quite convincingly that by attacking police misconduct, the news media is acting in the public interest.

Then again, is the minister firing a shot across the bows here? There are several important public debates at the moment about greater police powers; the routine arming of police officers; the role of police in dangerous pursuits at high speed; the controversial introduction of tazers into the New Zealand police service.

Perhaps Collins is sending a sinister warning: if the news media persists in critical analysis and reporting of these issues, there access to the ‘bread and butter’ of petty crime information will be withheld.

That is a dangerous thought.

One Response to Judith Collins – poor, poor pitiful me. Good news! There is no news

  1. Yes Judith, you really should be ashamed of yourself!

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