The attack on the five year old Belgian girl on holiday with her family at the Habitat Club in Turangi is hard to fathom. Friends of the 16 year old who admitted raping the young girl describe him as a ‘nice guy’ and are struggling to believe he would do such a thing. His mother also felt that her son was not the monster he had been portrayed by the media.
Despite the general disbelief that this ‘nice guy’ could do such a thing, angry locals abused his family and threw things at their home. According to the NZ Herald, the attack also stirred a young Auckland woman to call for harsher sentences for violent offenders. Tamsin Marshall started an online petition to introduce cumulative sentences for serious offenders.
She was quoted as saying: “When it happened, I was horrified – I actually lay in bed imagining it was my little girl. I’ve been reading the papers for years and have watched the increase in violent crimes and being horrified … and this case was the point where enough is enough, something has to be done.”
Garth McVicar’s clone
Ms Tamsin sounds like a clone of Garth McVicar of the so-called sensible sentencing trust. McVicar has been banging on about the increase in violent crime and lobbying for cumulative sentences for some time. The problem is that Garth McVicar is truely misinformed – there is no increase in violent crime. Over the last 20 years the murder rate has dropped by nearly 50% and crime rates in general are down.
And yet the public believes violent crime is on the rise. A Ministry of Justice study in 2003 found that 83% of New Zealanders held inaccurate and negative views about crime levels in society and ‘wrongly believed’ that crime was increasing. A more recent study in 2009 by Dr Michael Rowe, also from Victoria University, found an overwhelming public belief that crime has got worse despite New Zealand’s murder rate dropping by almost half in the past 20 years.
Global perceptions of safety
As a result of these inaccurate beliefs, a United Nations report assessing global perceptions of crime and safety found that between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This means that New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). We’re also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%).
There’s something wrong here. In the United States, where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe. In other words, public perceptions of safety in New Zealand are seriously out of touch with reality.
Sensationalist reporting in the media
It’s the media and their obsession with violent crime and Garth McVicar, which is largely to blame for this. A 2002 study into the role of the media’s coverage of crime reported:
“The selective and disproportionate media coverage of crime, particularly violence, when set alongside actual Police statistics, raises questions of skewed reporting in NZ (and elsewhere) at a time when crime rates are falling”.
When respondents to these surveys were asked where they get their information about crime, they said ‘from the media’. When journalists are asked the same question, they openly admit they rely on Garth McVicar. In April 2010, TVNZ broadcast a Media 7 interview by Russell Brown about Mr McVicar’s extraordinary access to the media. In his introduction, Mr Brown said:
“In the past nine years, journalists have been really lucky. Every time they’ve needed someone to tell them that their justice system is failing… they’ve been able to rely on just one man…Garth McVicar, a cocky from Hawkes Bay.”
The last thing New Zealand needs is a female clone of Garth McVicar. What it needs is less sensational reporting of crime in the media.