As Phil Taylor demonstrates in an excellent piece in this morning’s Herald, this is a complex question. On the face of it, the principle that we are all equal before the law should apply. The TV star and the All Black should receive the same treatment from the justice system as everyone else. I accept this principle. But should ‘the same treatment’ not include the same punishment for the same crime? I would have thought that it should. Take the Tony Veitch case for example. Let’s define it as a case of domestic assault. There are thousands of such cases before the New Zealand courts every year. But the names of the vast majority of those offenders will be unknown to you and me. That will be the case even if a report of the trial appeared in the papers. If we don’t know the people already, we quickly forget them and their offence. And if the offending was unrelated to their occupation and did not involve a prison sentence, there is also a reasonable chance that they will have kept their jobs. I need not remind you of the glare of publicity that surrounded and continues to surround Tony Veitch and of the damage that publicity did to his reputation, his career and his life. His punishment for the same crime as thousands of other New Zealanders was substantially harsher than theirs. In theory Veitch was treated equally before the law, but in practice he was not.
One could cite dozens of similar cases, including of course Millie Elder, whose every appearance in court is monitored and reported by the news media, though her celebrity is second-hand. Her punishment may be more severe than other P addicts, not only because of the publicity she receives, but because that publicity may itself inhibit her chances of recovery. But the ‘equal before the law’ argument against name suppression for well-known people is often little more than a rationale for envy and schadenfreude. We may be fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, we may even live vicariously through them, but we love nothing more than to see them fall from grace. Nothing is so reassuring about our heroes than the sight of their feet of clay. Much of the argument against name suppression for the rich and famous thus centres around the wealth, recognition and privilege we believe their fame has brought them. OK, we say, they’re doing it hard now, but look at the lives they led before. They had it better than the rest of us then; it’s only right they should have it worse now. The law as social leveller. It almost sounds reasonable, but though luck is undoubtedly a factor, as it is in most human endeavours, you need talent and dedication to achieve success and lasting fame. There should be no extra punishment for talent and dedication or for the fame and success they bring.
I’m therefore in agreement with the Law Commission’s recommendation that well-known people should continue to be able to gain name suppression in instances when publication of their names would cause ‘extreme hardship’. I’ve been a well-known person myself, a celebrity, famous even – as famous as you can be in Queen Street or Lambton Quay. And I can confirm that being famous does bring you a lot of good stuff – not just money (there’s less of that than you might think) but better treatment in a whole range of situations and, best of all, admiration, affection and kindness from large numbers of people. It’s nice and I never complained about the lack of privacy that went with it. Private fame is an oxymoron and I always understood that if I broke the law my punishment would be greater than John Doe’s for the same offence. That’s probably still the case. If I’m caught drunk-driving, my picture is likely to appear in some newspapers and possibly on the TV news. So I have to be more scrupulous in my behaviour than the average person – or take the consequences. But they should still be the same consequences as for anyone else convicted of the same offence. And, without name suppression, they won’t be. That isn’t being equal before the law. That isn’t fair. There are some exceptions of course. If I’m convicted of dishonesty or moral turpitude in some form, my name and picture should be in the papers. There’ll be justice in that, since I’ve placed a public premium on my integrity. Hypocrisy is the one unforgivable sin in public life and I’m a bit of a moraliser. The Graham Capills of this world have little to complain of. And if I were a pop star I might be arguing against name suppression on the grounds that lack of coverage of the case might cause me (and my publicist) ‘extreme hardship’. We might call it ’the Winehouse Submission’, with the defendant insisting to judge and jury, ‘You know I’m no good.’