Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public outrage: the defining sentiment of our time

(This is an after-dinner speech I gave at the Police Association's annual conference in Wellington this week.)

Good evening, and thank you for the privilege of speaking to you tonight.

I’d like to start by expressing my condolences for the loss of three of your fellow officers during the past 15 months. Their deaths are a reminder that every time a police officer leaves for work, there is a risk – only a statistically slight risk, but a risk nonetheless – that he or she won’t be coming home again.

Derek Wootton, Don Wilkinson and Len Snee serve to remind us of the demands that society places on the people charged with upholding the rule of law, and that’s something we need to remember at times when the police are under attack, as they frequently are – a matter I’ll return to shortly.

After Greg O’Connor approached me about giving this address, there was an exchange of emails between us. I asked Greg how long I should talk for. He suggested that 20 minutes might be about right. He then said I could read the audience, as it were, and cut my speech short if I sensed you were getting restive.

I emailed him back suggesting that what he seemed to be saying, in the nicest possible way, was that I should shut up before you started throwing food. To which he replied: “Food nothing – these are cops. First it will be OC spray, then the Taser. On the use of force continuum, lethal force will be considered only when the jokes get really, really bad.”

I then thanked him for kindly providing my opening joke – and probably my only one for the night.

I know it’s a convention that after-dinner speeches should be light-hearted affairs, and Greg did ask me not to be too solemn. But I’m no stand up comic, and there’s nothing worse than jokes told badly. So I’m going to talk tonight about serious issues.

You picked an interesting time for your conference. Last week I listened to a Federated Farmers spokesman from southern Hawke’s Bay complaining bitterly on radio about police conduct during the hunt for an armed gunman near Norsewood.

He was angry and frustrated because he couldn’t get a decision on whether dairy farmers could be allowed to go onto their farms accompanied by police escorts and attend to their distressed cows; and when he did finally get a decision there seemed to be a communication breakdown and the constables on the cordon still wouldn’t let him through.

I could sympathise with him, as most people probably would. But then I thought about the difficulty for the police in having to make operational decisions in a complex situation like that. There was a potentially dangerous armed man on the loose in a rural area with lots of cover and police didn’t know where he was. I drove through the area while the cordon was in place, and with all the low cloud and mist hanging over the hills, it struck me as having eerie similarities to the hunt for Stanley Graham on the West Coast in 1941. And we all know what happened on that occasion.

Farmers attending to their cows could have been exposed to fire, as would have any police officer accompanying them. Imagine the public outcry if a cockie or a cop had been shot. The talkback lines would have run hot for days, to say nothing of the official inquiries that would have been set in motion.

Nonetheless that farmer at least had a direct interest in what was happening and some knowledge of the situation, so I believe he had an absolute right to speak. That’s more than can be said for many of the people who rush to judgment on police conduct and invariably know better than the police how the operation should have been carried out.

Now let’s jump forward to this week, and the hunt for Aisling Symes in Henderson. It was entirely predictable that the New Zealand Herald yesterday morning ran a story quoting neighbours as saying they couldn’t understand how the police could not have found her body when it was right under their noses.

I had to listen to a more thorough account of what happened on Morning Report to realise that the drain where she was found had in fact been checked not once but several times and that there was a very good explanation for why Aisling wasn’t found earlier.

TV3’s coverage of the story last night was appalling. Once again the focus was on the supposed police failure. The tone was nitpicking and nauseatingly self-righteous. At times like this I cringe with shame at the behaviour of my fellow journalists, and I recall the famous condemnation of the British press by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

This morning I pick up my Dominion Post and I read not one but four stories that I’d like to comment on.

The front page story focused again on the finding of Aisling’s body but this time the critical scrutiny was not on the police but on the Waitakere City Council. The story revealed that there had been complaints to the council about the manhole cover on the drain where Aisling drowned, but nothing had been done to fix the problem. There was a suggestion that the council might be prosecuted for negligence.

This highlights one of the more interesting sociological phenomena of our time.

When something goes wrong, when anything tragic happens, we demand retribution. We assume someone must be to blame. Public outrage is the defining sentiment of our time. We seem incapable of accepting, as our forebears accepted, that terrible things happen through accident or unfortunate circumstances and in many cases there’s not much that could have been done to avoid them.

In the case of Aisling Symes it appears to have been a hideous combination of circumstances: a parent’s momentary inattention, an adventurous and inquisitive child, a manhole cover that had evidently popped out – as often happens – because of pressure in the drain created by heavy rain.

Toddlers drown too often, as police officers know. But it seems we are no longer able, as a society, to accept that terrible things sometimes just happen. We demand someone’s scalp. It’s the blame game, and it’s become a national sport.

In this case the police may escape being the chief scapegoat, because it appears that primary blame, as I mentioned, is falling on the Waitakere City Council. So we can expect the usual spectacle of official inquiries, followed by ritual breast-beating and mea culpas. We insist on it.

Let me predict that the council will review its processes and issue a solemn assurance that procedures have been tightened to ensure no toddler falls down a manhole again. Committees will be formed and checklists will be drawn up. But the checklist hasn’t been invented that can neutralise every risk and anticipate every human failing, and it’s idle – in fact dishonest – to pretend that it’s possible. There are tens of thousands of manhole covers in New Zealand and my guess is that any one of them could pop out in heavy rain. Are we going to replace all of them because of one tragic death?

We’re caught up in a quixotic quest for the perfect society in which all hazards are eliminated. This coincides with a widespread conviction, encouraged by decades of mollycoddling nanny state government, that no one should be held responsible for their own actions.

Burgeoning bureaucracies such as OSH are devoted to making us all safe. But you can’t legislate for all human imperfection and there’s only so far you can go to protect people against themselves. We end up chasing our tails.

I’m reminded of the famous prayer that goes: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Now, back to today’s paper. On page 2 there’s a leaked preliminary police report about an investigation into a teenager’s claim that a constable broke his neck with a baton while closing down a rowdy party. This is a story that has already had quite a bit of play in the media. Now it turns out that the young man has previous convictions for disorder, violence and driving offences. I would make no comment on that, other than to say that probably the two most important lessons I’ve learned in 40 years as a journalist, and that I still keep learning over and over again, are these: that there are two sides to every story, and that things are often not what they seem at first glance.

A bit of professional scepticism doesn’t go amiss when confronted with stories from people claiming they’ve been hard done by. As my late colleague Frank Haden used to say, journalists should doubt everything with gusto.

On page 3 today there’s a story about the Independent Police Conduct Authority report on car chases. We learn that the police have accepted the authority’s recommendations about how car chases should be conducted in future, so as to minimise the risk of more deaths.

Two things intrigue me about this. The first is that it now seems to be the official position that if someone is killed while trying to escape from the police, it’s the police’s fault. This strikes me as being arse about face, if you’ll pardon the expression. Again, it’s all to do with people not being held responsible for their own actions. If young men risk being killed while trying to escape the police, the solution seems pretty obvious: they should stop when requested. It’s that simple.

The second point is that if police abandon chases for fear of causing accidents, there’s an obvious risk that lawbreakers will simply put their foot down with impunity every time a police car tries to pull them over.

I realise there’s a very difficult balancing act here, but we run the risk that police officers will be emasculated by an overly risk-averse approach. It seems to me that the dice are loaded in favour of the lawbreakers if the pursuing police officer has to pull over and run through a 20-point checklist before deciding whether to continue the chase.

Part of the problem, of course, is that snap decisions made by police in situations of danger and stress are subsequently subjected to critical scrutiny by people who have the luxury of time, safety and comfort in which to determine whether the police behaved correctly. Judgments made in haste can be reviewed by others at leisure.

Among those sitting in judgment are newspaper editorial writers and columnists like me. Now I wouldn’t like any of you to repeat this outside the privacy of this room, but there’s a very apt quote that describes what editorial writers do. It says their job is to hide in the hills until the fighting is over, then come down and bayonet the wounded. It was written by an editorial writer, so you can assume he knew what he was talking about. If you do want to quote it to others, you didn’t get it from me.

I turn to page 5 of the Dom Post now and I read a story about an Auckland family that has criticised the police for not doing more to locate a missing family member. Their concerns may or may not be justified; I don’t know. But once again it highlights our propensity as a society to feel aggrieved.

We live in a highly fractious society in which people seem programmed to take offence and find fault with everyone and everything. The police, because they’re at the sharp end of so many of society’s problems, are a natural lightning rod for criticism. So are the media, although paradoxically the media simultaneously feed the cult of grievance and victimisation.

In this querulous culture, everyone’s a victim – even the bad guys. If the police obtain a conviction, it’s now almost a reflex action for someone to insist that they got the wrong guy. And even if it’s generally accepted that they did get the right guy, and he’s duly dealt with by the courts, it’s then the judiciary’s turn to get it in the neck from a strident lobby group that complains the sentence wasn’t severe enough. That, in turn, invariably sets off yet another lobby group – the one that says criminals aren’t to blame for their own bad behaviour and we’re being beastly and inhuman by putting them in jail.

It’s become almost an automatic ritual, after every sentencing for a violent offence, for the victims or their surviving relatives to front up to the TV cameras with their arms around each other outside court and tearfully protest that justice hasn’t been done. It’s all part of what the English writer Theodore Dalrymple describes as emotional incontinence – the bizarre compulsion to indulge in maudlin public displays of sentiment. The cards and teddy bears and bunches of flowers that magically appear wherever someone has been killed are a manifestation of the same phenomenon.

The last item I want to refer to was one on Morning Report this morning about the new Crimestoppers programme. I admit I didn’t hear the entire item but it seemed to question the likely effectiveness of Crimestoppers because it’s based in Britain and the operators might struggle to understand the Kiwi vernacular. I bet the reaction of most listeners would have been, as mine was: for God’s sake, give the thing a chance. I wouldn’t have a clue whether Crimestoppers is going to work but I thought this item demonstrated why so many people cynically view the media as being interested only in negativity.

In saying all this I might give the impression that I’m a cheerleader for the police. I’m not. I am pro-police, but I’ve been critical of police conduct on many occasions – call it bayoneting the wounded if you like – and there are one or two areas where I have marked differences of opinion with the Police Association.

Neither would I argue for a moment that the police should be exempted from public scrutiny and criticism. You’re a human institution and like all human institutions, you’re imperfect. You’re also accountable, as you must be in a free society. I believe it’s healthy for police performance to be subjected to rigorous public scrutiny and criticism.

The important thing is that criticism should be fair and reasonable. But even when it’s ill-informed, I would argue that we’re probably better off with it than without it. It’s part of the price we pay for living in a free and open democracy. And ultimately, I believe the truth has a way of prevailing. One of my favourite quotes is from the poet John Milton, a champion of free speech, who wrote in 1643: “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Incidentally, I believe you can see this process playing out in the case of David Bain. Bain was acquitted at his retrial, but does that mean New Zealanders accept his innocence? At least one opinion poll indicates that many people are now more convinced of his guilt than they were before his acquittal.

Some of you may have heard of a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Basically it argues that groups of diverse, independently minded people, left to sift things out from a range of information sources and come to their own conclusions, get things right more often than the supposed experts do.

The Bain case may be an illustration of that principle. The jury, after being subjected to a very intense and some might say highly selective examination of the facts in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the courtroom, came to one conclusion; whereas the public, watching from a distance and possibly able to form a more detached and objective opinion, may well have come to another. I’ll say no more than that.

Before I finish I’d like to return briefly to the role of the media in all this.

The media are crucial to a free and open democratic society just as the police are.

A free society can’t function without the rule of law and respect for property rights. We depend on the police to uphold that law and we expect them to do it fairly and efficiently.

By the same token, a democracy can’t function without information. That’s where the media comes in. As the American journalist Walter Lippman once said, if we didn’t have a news media we would live in an invisible society. We would not know anything.

It’s part of the media’s role to scrutinise the behaviour of politicians and public institutions and to hold them accountable. But having said that, I do think we need to turn the volume down a bit. In a highly competitive media environment, particularly in the electronic media such as television, public debate on issues such as police conduct risks getting ratcheted up to the point where it generates far more heat than light.

Like the police, journalists can do their job effectively only when they command public respect and confidence, and opinion polls suggest police are doing better in that regard than journalists. In the most recent Readers’ Digest survey of New Zealand’s most trusted professions, police officers were ranked at No 12, between dentists and farmers. Journalists were skulking at No 34, between taxi drivers and psychics. The only consolation is that we came in ahead of politicians, who clocked in at No 39.

On a similar note, UMR Research recently publishing an opinion poll which revealed that only 35 percent of New Zealanders believe the media report the news accurately, and 30 percent believe the media are one-sided. This is bad news for my profession, but possibly quite satisfying for you. And on that consoling note, I’d like to finish and thank you for your attention. Now you can start throwing food.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Eloquent expression of my own views, not so much specifically about the demonizing of police, but especially your general observations about the sanctimonious, self-righteous eagerness to scapegoat as well -- as the willingness to legislate false panaceas to all the ills of the world. I'll be linking to this blog on my next Your Man Friday's Ideas weekly email posting.
You might enjoy this as well
Ken Stange