Sunday, July 26, 2009

The death of civilisation

Before I begin, let me say that Clayton Weatherston seemed to me, like so many other New Zealanders, a creepy, calculating killer before his conviction by jury trial. I had little doubt that he would be convicted of murder. It seemed plain, based on the evidence - whether we liked Weatherston or not (there didn't seem much to admire).

What really concerns me is the mob mentality that has arisen following this trial. Weatherston has been vilified. He is probably the country's most hated person.Even my own circle - educated, reasonable people - felt some satisfaction baying for the killer's blood - happily rehearsing the gossip that a six figure bounty had been placed on his life in prison.

The broadcast media coverage has a lot to answer for in this case. It portrayed Sophie Elliott, the victim, as sainted, beautiful, worthy of celebrity and filled with promise. She was our Snow White in a glass coffin, they reconstructed her mutilated self, like retouching a supermodel in a fashion magazine.

Weatherston was filmed unsympathetically. News items were brutally edited using the same techniques 'reality TV' shows to create 'goodies' and 'baddies' like Survivor and Big Brother. Not that Weatherston seemed to need much help.

Television in particular (I didn't hear any radio broadcasts) lapped it up and polarised the information to the point where only black and white were left. Saint and Sinner. Which side are you on?

The justice system in New Zealand follows the premise that a person accused of a crime is innocent until they are proven guilty without doubt. Weatherston admitted killing the girl but argued that she provoked him to do so. He was afforded the right to argue that defence and show that his crime was not murder, but the lesser charge: manslaughter. In his defence he sought to show that his victim wasn't pure as the driven snow.

Pundits have criticised Weatherston's tearing down of his victim's reputation when she had no possible right of reply. His problem was that it was his word against her residual media image and with each of the five days in the dock; cross-examined in his own defence he dug a deeper hole for himself. He looked and sounded more and more like a twisted, evil bastard sent for a screen test by casting central.

But the law is the law. Weatherston was entitled to his day in court. He was innocent (of murder) until his guilt was proven beyond reasonable doubt . Just as you and I - and your grandfather, aunt, uncle, son or daughter would be. Before you scream for blood and buy into the knee jerk populist reaction of Simon Power (Minister of Justice) and Judith Collins (Minister of Police) it is important to remember that simple point. We have to have faith in the system as it applies to us all - even when it is imperfect.

Simon Power's desire to fast track changes to the laws of the land that provide for the defence of provocation (which has been also been used by battered women who killed their abusers) is akin to holding aloft a saintly, grisly relic from Sophie Elliott to rouse the rabble behind a change that should be debated and considered thoroughly and in public. This applies to any major change in laws that affect the rights and liberties of the population. Peter Williams Q.C. has spoken eloquently and reasonably on the matter, but it seems seasoned legal minds such as his, who care more for justice than popularity, will be ignored.

Using populist causes to insinuate radical change is not especially new, Hitler was a past master. The cultivated, civilised population of Germany enlisted willingly in a programme that had disastrous consequences for the whole world by turning into an organised mob.

I hope this isn't where we are headed and media will learn that the consequences of their reporting is far reaching. News isn't supposed to be like a trailer for Coronation Street's latest idiotic, murderous frolic. Justice is not a joke or an entertainment for our salacious pleasure.

Weatherston may have damaged his mute victim's reputation but television, radio and newspapers propagated it and cultivated it solely in the interest of ratings and advertising revenue. The subsequent horror was not inflicted on Ms Elliott's family by her murderer but by our insatiable consumption of the despicable to the point where we can't tell the difference between real life and death and Dexter.

On the evening of the guilty verdict TV3 was running promotional trailers on a very heavy rotation for Dexter - a show about an unrepentant mass-murderer who mutilates his victims. The trailer's oh-so-clever lines ran to: "Who put the Laughter into Slaughter" and "Who put the fun in funeral".

We live in a world of cynical media symbiosis. They feed us. We feed them… until we can't seem to manage without the fix. We're junk junkies. As Hitchcock said "Seeing a murder on television... can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some."

When Clayton Weatherston is inevitably hurt or killed in prison by an inmate as murderous and psychopathic as he (while guards look away with our collective consent) I won't be cheering. It won't be natural justice - as if that idea is a synonym of the law of the jungle.

I will mourn the loss of our civility.


  1. A very well written and totally balanced view of our justice system that has been bred from sensationalist columns in newspapers and the need to thrill rather than report.
    When one or two people own the news there is little to report but a lot of people available to offer opinions.
    The in vogue style of governance is to react to the populist mindset rather than try and uphold a very sound law and government that has evolved over centuries.
    Only when Governments make it impossible to own more than one media source will we return to competitive news journalism.

  2. Anonymous10:52 p.m.

    This post made me grumpy, and I hated it. Most likely because it is far too true.
    I have to admit that I have been one of the ones that has gotten caught up in the hype of it all, being from Dunedin there was really no escape from it.
    I don't believe in "evil" however, that's just a label meant to put a great distance between what we regard to be the worst of humanity and "us".

    I would like to ask though which is worse, the fact that people are so angry at Weatherston, or that we don't feel this way towards all our violent criminals all the time? Give the people that kill babies in tumbledryers this type of coverage and I'm sure they would be widely reviled too. Possibly because Weatherston wasn't a single syllabled mongrel this meant people were more captivated that they normally would be, maybe he was too close to the type of person we associate with ourselves, "one of us".

    I certainly wouldn't cheer if Weatherston was killed in prison, I'm sure I would feel quite strange if that happened despite comments I might have made about him in the past. But it's human to have these imperfect emotions and reactions, and I would rather lose my civility knowing that I still have my humanity. I don't think people like Weatherston deserve any civiity. He's given up that right. He certainly didn't show Sophie Elliot any.

  3. Yeah maybe....

    I was one of those baying for blood (actually my baying was more about the obvious fact of his guilt rather than blood per se). I spent a day at the trial, and don't have a TV so missed out on traditional media's sensationalism. My attitude towards Weatherston was (I hope) founded in my assessment of his character from what I saw in person.

    At the end of the day I still contend that being able to claim a mitigating factor in a case where someone has been stabbed multiple times and (more importantly) mutilated, is somewhat obscene.

    If he'd have claimed insanity then maybe, but his provocation claim was based on things that, to be honest, most husbands could claim (lack of appreciation for his family, criticism of his person, generally moodiness).

    And yes, there was some kind of repulsion for someone who would willingly sit in the witness box and have himself turned into some kind of bizarre puppet - we can understand gangland killers of babies in South Auckland, but not Weatherston types... but there's the difference. Gangland killers in South Auckland usually rely on evidential defences, Weatherston admitted the killing but it's his choice of defence that had everyone (including at times, his defence team) so riled.

    As for what will happen to him inside... while we may contend that it's fair justice, and while I may agree with your second commenter that perhaps Weatherston has given up his right to civility, I'd put him in the same box as the other inmates found guilty of violent crime - send 'em out breaking rocks until they're too tired to take their frustrations out on each other....

  4. I heartily agree....I too will mourn the loss of civility in our nation/world. I have high hopes that it will return and that the media will finally learn that morbid, bleak, negative 'news' is undermining our inner sense of decency...and will turn their attention to reporting positive news and through the Law of Attraction become a part of the uphill movement.

  5. Danijel Duvnjak1:27 a.m.

    Yes it may be true the Government creates laws. And it is also true that we have a choice of who is makes up the Government and that if we believe a law is unjust we have a choice to follow it or not.

    As for the actions of a human being, I hope that they will always lead to learning, knowledge, understanding, wisdom and finally Peace.

    However while external power, external control, external wealth remain at the peak of our collective conscience, we will remain in the search of internal peace, and our world will remain unchanged.

    My optimism stems from the knowledge that the change has begun and will spread as we each learn to look inside to remember what was once lost. And as we find and choose to live from the place of internal peace, it will begin to manifest in our relationships with our family, friends and the world around us.

    PS My humblest apologies for hijacking the thread.