I have worked on a few documentaries, and they all have their challenges - some more than others. Last year I researched and helped produce one in Australia: this is it.
On the day The Press reported on its front page that serious criminals were taking supervised walks around St Albans Park, a convicted murderer and rapist was painting my house. He was neatly applying a Half Truffle off-white to the lower level and cursing the lack of scaffolding: it was meant to arrive on Thursday. And the Thursday before that.
He was annoyed that he had to start painting from the bottom up. It’s not what’s done: something to do with drips. But the job must be done. Painting, like journalism, like selling news.
He had bought the paper and read about the “notorious”, “dangerous criminals” who had committed crimes that “shocked the nation”. The Press could have picked him. Unlike the guys in the park, he had no anklet and no supervision: just weekly probation. The Press would have a field day based on the article’s rationale.
The paper argued a moral high ground, citing concerns that the public should be aware of those who are in their midst. It was largely glossed over that they were under strict supervision by staff from the residential care facility that they share – and not, as the article’s first sentence suggested, three offenders who had “teamed up”.
So while the Stuff headline described it as a “High Risk stroll”, it was anything but. What is was was sensationalist journalism. The journalist and the newspaper are keen recidivists in this regard. Last year they reported a convicted murderer was among a group of prisoners on a work-to-release programme working in the Botanic Gardens, seemingly horrified that this man might be seen by the “school children, the elderly and young families [who] strolled nearby”.
In the tiny St Albans park where the journalist “watched as the trio completed two laps” he missed a fourth offender right there in his very own midst, mistaking him for a member of the supervision team. If a journalist missed one right in front of him, what hope do we have?
There are 9,000 people in prison and 60 percent are in for sexual or violent crimes. The vast majority have fixed sentences (as was the case with the worst offender walking in the park) meaning they are lawfully entitled to leave prison when that sentence ends. Most offenders are in prison for less than two years. Enough for every front page til Christmas.
Even our worst offenders tend to get out of prison eventually. We have 719 offenders serving life sentences in New Zealand, 217 of whom are currently out on parole.
Some might argue we should just keep those on life and PD locked up forever – and we could. Sometimes we will. Our longest serving prisoner is Alfred Thomas Vincent, who became eligible for parole in 1975, and is still serving a sentence of preventative detention after 43 years. But at the other extreme you find the likes of Dr Paul Wood, who earned two degrees and began a PhD in prison and is a law abiding tax paying citizen. Few could argue that there’s any public good in him being behind bars.
Clearly there are very difficult judgement calls that need to be made that balance competing interests around the public good. None of this was articulated in The Press.
With no data, no policy background and no alternatives, the paper navigated readers on a direct journey to anger and ignorance: hardly the elements of intelligent debate.
There are really difficult and important issues at play here. We are not well served by a tabloid journalist trying desperately to make the front page, and by a most often respectable publication encouraging it.
In the meantime, a convicted rapist and murder is painting my house. He’s doing great work and trying to get on with a crime free life. I hope he finishes the job before The Press discovers him and uses it to sell papers.
*Once again the bloody Facebook and Twitter counters have gone of the fritz (it happens on Weebly from time-to-time). I was surprised how many people read this piece - and all of the feedback was positive except for one person who wrote: "How dare you defend these monsters, but the Half Truffle sounds fab". Brilliant!.
I reserve the right to change my mind in the face of superior evidence.
WINNER: BEST BLOG