If you were merely skimming the first paragraph of Herald articles this morning you might have assumed the worse about the accused in the October Raids trials when you read this:
Members of the “Urewera 18” group threw Molotov cocktail fire bombs and fired semi-automatic weapons at training camps in the bush, court documents show.
However, should you have had the time to read on, you might have wondered whether “show” should really have been “allege.” For instance:
Evidence from Detective Sergeant Aaron Pascoe was given to the hearing that film and photographs of a September 2007 camp showed a woman he said was Ms Morse holding an object believed to be a Molotov cocktail.
The person carried the object out of the view of the camera and returned a short time later without it.
Mr Pascoe was to give evidence that he believed she threw the Molotov cocktail into an outdoor oven, where police later found remnants of Molotov cocktails.
Photos of a person holding a pistol in various military type poses were said to be of Ms Morse.
Two pistols later seized by police were found to be unable to discharge a shot although an attempt to modify one appeared to have been made.
as well as:
Also brought to the court was a CD of gunshot sounds recorded on the Tuhoe land in the Urewera Ranges.
None of this shows that the so-called “Urewera 18”1 threw Molotov cocktail fire bombs and fired semi-automatic weapons. That claim is simply the police’s interpretation of the evidence.
The police’s interpretation of the evidence is something which they would have defended in court; I’m not saying this interpretation is, in fact, incorrect, but without hearing an argument for it and hearing the defendants’ response to that argument, we should not say that the evidence shows that Molotov cocktails were thrown semi-automatic weapons were fired.
Indeed, it is odd that the New Zealand Herald article even uses “show” in that first paragraph, because the online version of the story ends with this summary, which clearly shows (I say without any hint of irony) the highly conditional interpretation of the evidence by the police:
* One person was seen throwing an object said to be a Molotov cocktail.
* A woman who police say was former accused Valerie Morse was photographed holding a pistol.
* Court documents show two people at the Urewera camps will give evidence of what happened there.
* Police also had recordings of gunshots heard at the camps.
We could ask why the Herald ran with such a strong claim in that first paragraph.
One easy answer is that it makes for a much more exciting story (and there are numerous studies which indicate that as most readers only read the first half of the article you can get away with making bold claims and misleading readers (because the weaker claims, although unread, are still in the story) if it helps “sell” the story).
Another answer is that in a small country like Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand), the small number of news media outlets is in thrall to the police and courts and thus unlikely to challenge the official theory in fear that their sources of information will dry up.
I am sympathetic to both of these views, but I think there is a simpler hypothesis which helps explain the situation which is congruent with the other two, which is that the court reporters that the Herald employs are naive and think that the police would not set out to present anything other than the unbiased truth to the courts2. If you believe everything the police tell you is prima facie warranted, then you will report their view of the story rather than ask “Are the police right in making this inference to the existence of terrible goings on?”
None of what I have said should be taken as saying that the police case has no merits: in our judicial system the merit of the police case against the accused will be tested in court and judged by jurors3. Now, I admit that am on record as saying that I think the police case is a beat-up (and if the police had grounds to surveil what was going on in the Urewera I hope they are doing the same for a number of gun clubs and farmers as well, who also have guns, also going around firing them and also hold political views some might find distasteful) but I don’t have all the evidence4. However, if or when such evidence is presented, we still need to ask if it is the raw data or is it evidence as filtered through some interpretation of the raw data? If it’s the latter (as at the start of the Herald article), then it is only going to be as good as the argument which supports that interpretation (and, in an ideal world, will also provide an account as to why other interpretations should be discounted).
- “So-called” because it is not clear that the arrestees were an organised group prior to the arrests: this is a label that has been put onto a group of people arrested at the same time and tarred as working together towards some plan prior to their arrests.↩
- This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had an independent prosecutions service, but that is a matter for another time.↩
- Which is a fresh development, as originally this case was going to be by judge alone.↩
- Some of you might; you know how to get in contact with me.↩