Media coverage of horrific crimes not always in the public interest

by Jake Quinn


What is the public interest? These days it seems to be more about what the public are interested in than what is in the public’s interest to know.

Add this to the rational desire by corporatist media to achieve higher ratings and we have the perfect conditions for ‘crime as entertainment’ each night at six o’clock.

Crime joins celebrity, sports, weather, and (when they’re sufficiently horrible to each other, mess up, fall asleep or bonk) politics.

The man pictured above – Clayton Weatherston – is a particularly sick individual and because of extensive media coverage we all have the luxury of knowing exactly how.

Anyone who has turned on a television, tuned into radio or opened a newspaper will have learned that he has been charged with murder but has pleaded guilty to man-slaughtering (to coin an appropriate phrase) the young Sophie Elliot. She had just graduated with First Class honours and was about to start a great job at the Treasury in Wellington.

He is using the controversial defence of provocation (follow this link for an interesting Salient article by Conrad Rayners on the subject of provocation).

We have learned in graphic detail how she was killed. We have also come to know many details of their relationship and previous relationships each of them have had.

Through these details it has become increasingly obvious (and disturbing) that Mr Weatherston wishes to discredit the character of the young women he killed, even after her tragic death.

For me, watching this travesty unfold begs the question ‘why do I need to know this, and furthermore why is Weatherston being given the platform to feed his warped ego on the news each night’?

The answer may lie in the nature of media coverage of criminal cases within the courts and the pretence that such coverage is in ‘the public interest’.

The public interest however, as an excuse or motivation for reporting, is often used but little understood.

The concept of “the public interest’ has no agreed upon definition”, we learn from a paper titled The Public Interest, the Media and Privacy, written by Professor David E. Morrison and Michael Svennevig for the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Institute for Public Policy Research and others.

From the report’s executive summary: “The broad concept of ‘the public interest’ is familiar to large proportions of the public, and it is considered a suitable defence for media intrusion of privacy under appropriate circumstances. However, there did not seem to be any one firm definition of the term.”

It goes on to note that: “Regulators, media personnel, trade associations and others in the industry do not have a precise definition of the public interest either. Nonetheless, all can say in what areas ‘public interest’ might be considered to operate, such as in the areas of crime, health, national security, and so on.”

In short, one could say that the public interest is used as an excuse to cover things which will rate well because people will want to watch them. I don’t think that’s not good enough.

What would be nice would be if the sharp minds of the Commonwealth Press Union’s Media Freedom Committee spend some time working on how the public interest can be better defined. Specifically, in regards to its use as the motivation for media coverage of court cases of a horrific and disturbing nature.

Likewise, Bell Gully could have a look into it as part of the ongoing work they do around Media and the Law.

Neither of those things however, are realistic.

Just as Bell Gully very reasonably has it’s client’s interest at heart, the Media Freedom Committee looks after the interests of the print and television companies that want to increase, not limit, access by journalists to court proceedings.

So if anyone were to regulate the nature of the reporting of horrific crimes in this country – in the name of the public interest – it would have to be the Ministry of Justice, under direction from it’s Minister Simon Power, by way of changes to the rules that govern media coverage within courts.