"I see [Roast Busters] as ... God-given opportunity to reach millions of people potentially ... To me it was a form of performing… It was kind of like a performance act ... I dream of way bigger things than the Roast Busters."
Those are the words of alleged Roast Busters ringleader Joseph Parker. In June 2018, he published a podcast on Spotify that had largely flown under the radar until now. Seven months later, the wannabe-musician has been given a much larger platform from which to deliver his side of the story (and arguably launch a rehabilitative PR offensive), courtesy of MediaWorks' flagship 6pm news show, Newshub.
Over two nights this week, Parker told the nation that he and his fellow Roast Busters "weren't the monsters that everybody thought that [they] were". "The police have all the details on every single complaint and they decided not to press charges for a reason," he argued.
The police reinvestigated the case over 2013-14 and ruled charges wouldn't be laid, saying the decision based on not meeting "the evidential test" as required under the Solicitor General's prosecution guidelines, the wishes of individual victims, the nature of the offence and age of the parties at the time of the offending.
An Independent Police Conduct Authority investigation in 2015 found that in the first police investigation, "the evidential threshold for prosecution was met" and that, "police investigations … failed in several significant areas to meet the requirements of a good criminal investigation".
The case was a national shame. It is burned into my memory, and I'm sure many of us remember the sickening details.
They bragged about having sex with girls as young as 13, with the acts captured on video and uploaded for all to see. Two of the teenage girls reportedly contemplated suicide afterwards.
Police asking a young complainant what she was wearing when her alleged assault took place, telling the media that none of the victims had been "brave enough" to come forward to lay an official complaint (when at least one brave young woman had done so years prior), and not investigating whether they could be charged under all available offences. Victim-blaming in the media, most notably by then-hosts of Newshub's sister radio station, RadioLive, which described the acts of the Roast Busters as "mischief" and asked a teenage caller how old she was when she lost her virginity.
The thought of it still makes my blood boil. I would have been glad to never see the words "Roast Busters" in the media ever again. Upon seeing them this week, my first thought was, "Why? Why on earth would any media organisation reopen the wounds of the victims and the nation without a damned good reason?"
I wasn't alone. No doubt feeling the heat of the inevitable public indignation that followed the story, Newshub chief news officer Hal Crawford attempted to explain his editorial decision-making in an op-ed on the Newshub website.
He evoked the principle of public interest; "We must seek information about matters of public interest even from those we disagree with and even despise." But, as Journalism 101 drums into its students early on, just because the public is interested in a particular topic, it doesn't mean giving it airtime is in their best interests.
The public are understandably interested in (and disgusted by) actions that could amount to sexual crimes that are alleged to have been committed against children. Despite that, I struggle to understand how the principle of public interest could be responsibly interpreted to mean the media should give a platform to someone accused of being one of the ringleaders of the Roast Busters to tell the nation years later about their struggle as a result of the media attention surrounding their alleged offending and their hopes to launch a music career.
There was no reason to broadcast Parker's interview other than because Newshub had a scoop. I doubt that anyone was clamouring to hear a Roast Buster's side of the story.
Splitting the story into two splashes on the 6pm news smacked of outrage-manufacturing. The first story seemed designed to spark fury, and the second to capitalise on the first. Why have one bite of the ratings pie when you can have two?
That the audience-grabbing may have come at the expense of a group of young women who have arguably already experienced quite enough trauma for a lifetime seems to have been too trivial a consideration to outweigh the allure of the "exclusive".
Crawford's assertion the teens had been "grateful" that Newshub notified them of the interview, despite some of them questioning why it would run the story at all, perhaps goes some way to illuminating the lack of sensitivity with which the victims were treated.
It gets worse. Part two of the interview showed the number of a sexual violence helpline at the end. The number was incorrect. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, and the impact such a story would have upon victims of sexual assault, you would think a media organisation would go above and beyond to ensure such a basic error wouldn't occur. That it did, in my view speaks volumes.
In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to justify the story, Crawford offered this: "Whether Parker is sincere in his apology and spiritual awakening is a judgment that I will leave to you — a judgment you would have been unable to make had he not been interviewed at all."
It would have been obvious to anyone who listened to Parker's podcast whether or not he was sincere. That Newshub offered New Zealand the chance to make a judgment on a question no one was asking in the first place I'm sure will be of little comfort to the young victims who live with their trauma every day.
Where to get help:
• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334.
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.