Editorial: Devlin case shows secrecy not best route

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Martin Devlin. Photo / Dean Purcell
Martin Devlin. Photo / Dean Purcell

In the normal course of events, sports broadcaster Martin Devlin's spot of bother with the law would have attracted minimal coverage. The media would have briefly reported his arrest for disorderly behaviour in central Auckland, and the granting of police diversion. Even his "celebrity" status would have warranted nothing more. Within a matter of days, the incident would have been forgotten.

Devlin's mistake was to seek name suppression, which the courts in this country continue to grant too readily. Inevitably the identity of the offender and the nature of his offence became a matter of public interest. If Justice Minister Simon Power needs yet another case to justify his planned changes to name suppression law, this was surely it.

The initial Auckland District Court hearing provided the media with only a sketchy outline of why the broadcaster had been arrested. Any application for name suppression always implies the accused has something to hide. Interest is piqued when the applicant is normally in the public eye. Devlin, therefore, invited interest from the media, and speculation in the community.

It was widely assumed, naturally enough, that his behaviour was far worse than what has transpired to be a minor incident.

The farcical chain of events did not end there. Inevitably, any celebrity who might have fitted the bill became ensnared. As speculation gathered pace, 46-year-old broadcasters Simon Dallow decided to make it known he was not involved.

Devlin said yesterday that he sought name suppression to try to protect his children from being identified and embarrassed. In that hope he would be no different from any other parent who found himself charged with disorderly behaviour. But it is doubtful that Joe Citizen would have been granted suppression, even by a community magistrate going through the formalities in the period between Christmas and New Year. What is unquestionable is that some judges still seem to think position and privilege are grounds for suppression.

Certainly, Joe Citizen would have been unlikely to entertain the thought that a legal battle might succeed in retaining name suppression, perhaps permanently. For celebrities, however, recent judicial history provides evidence of just such a possibility. Particular encouragement may be derived from the "prominent entertainer" who, on the grounds that his career would be damaged, managed to keep his identity secret after admitting performing an indecent act on a young girl not so long ago.

Mr Power's planned reform, contained in the Criminal Procedure Bill, is a response to such breaches of open justice. It instructs judges that wealth, reputation or public awareness are not to be factors in the granting of suppression. It will permit no unequal treatment of celebrities, such as sportspeople and entertainers, simply to preserve their earning power or protect their families, while ordinary citizens win no such concession. Defendants will have to prove "extreme hardship" will result if their names are made public.

It seems Devlin finally recognised the practical futility of trying to suppress his name in the face of overwhelming public interest. He said yesterday that the only effective way to protect his children from being identified and embarrassed by his behaviour was not to have acted that way in the first place. He is right there, of course. But he would also have been spared a lot of unwanted attention if the seeking of name suppression was not a viable option. This should be the last example of an incident such as this being absurdly inflated by secrecy.

This editorial has been amended. The original copy stated that John Campbell was another broadcaster who announced that he was not the arrested celebrity. This was incorrect and we apologise for the error.

- NZ Herald

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