Editorial: Entertainers don't deserve court leniency

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Celebrities now have good reason to expect they will recieve special protection from the courts. Photo / Thinkstock
Celebrities now have good reason to expect they will recieve special protection from the courts. Photo / Thinkstock

Associate Professor Bill Hodge, of the Auckland University law school, drove straight to the nub of the matter in commenting on the comedian who last week walked free after facing sex charges involving his 4-year-old daughter.

"If he'd been an auto mechanic, he would have been down the drain before you could blink," he said.

There is little doubt Professor Hodge is right. Once again, public confidence in the justice system has been eroded by the spectacle of a man receiving special treatment because of his position in society.

In a sentencing hearing at the Auckland District Court, Judge Philippa Cunningham discharged the comedian without conviction on a charge of performing an indecent act.

The man had pleaded guilty, but his lawyer said he should be allowed to keep his record clean. A conviction would make it hard for him to work again as a comedian.

Judge Cunningham, having evidently been swayed by this argument, said the consequences of a conviction would outweigh the gravity of the offence.

If this was not sufficiently injudicious, she also supplied the comedian with what amounted to a job reference.

"He's a talented New Zealander. He makes people laugh. Laughter is an incredible medicine and we all need lots of it," she said.

As critics pointed out, what is needed far more are strong messages that might help to reduce this country's appalling child abuse statistics.

Judge Cunningham's focus should have been more squarely on the welfare of the comedian's young daughter.

Celebrities who appear in court in such circumstances do have far more to lose than the man in the street.

Not only are there upheavals in their personal lives but the many benefits of public acclaim might disappear overnight.

Yet fame and fortune should lead celebrities to be more careful to stay within the bounds of the law, and make them understand their position entails added social responsibility. It should not be a lever to be pulled when they wish to be excused for transgressions.

Twice in less than two years, however, entertainers have been discharged without conviction for indecent acts because judges believed the impact on their careers would outweigh the gravity of the offences.

In 2009, a high-profile musician pleaded guilty to committing an indecent act on a 16-year-old girl while drunk.

He was let off by Judge Eddie Paul, who also permanently suppressed his name.

Naming and shaming would have a "significantly adverse effect" on the musician's international career and his record and ticket sales, the judge said.

In the case of the comedian, name suppression was not an issue.

In an instance such as this, it is necessary to protect the victim of the sexual assault.

The musician's discharge may, therefore, have been somewhat more grievous because the name suppression implied celebrities could flick public attention on and off.

In both cases, however, the men should have been convicted on the charges that had been admitted.

This would have affirmed that they had been treated the same as any other member of the community.

As it is, a discharge without conviction has considerable ramifications. Kathryn McPhillips, of Auckland Sexual Abuse Help, noted it meant the comedian could apply, for example, to be a teacher.

"There's nothing to stop him doing this to other children," she said.

Equally, celebrities now have good reason to expect they will receive special protection from the courts for no other reason than the threat to their place in the public spotlight.

It is a notion the judicial system should scotch at the next opportunity.


The ability to comment on this article has been removed due to an increasing number of unpublishable emails. Here is a selection of previously published comments.

- NZ Herald

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