Justice before politics

Random thought 27 March 2011

One of the great battles on the way from monarchy to democracy in Britain was the abolition of the bill of attainder. A bill of attainder was in effect a political trial of someone who had run afoul of the authorities. It was aimed at a person, not a type of activity. You could act within the law but nonetheless lose your head.

When this contradiction of the rule of law was abolished someone accused of a crime could be tried only in a court of law and could be convicted only of a transgression of the common law, defined by judges in accordance with tradition and case law, or general statute law. This is a fundamental element of individual liberty.

Phil Goff, explaining to Paul Holmes on Q&A on 27 March why he had not gone public as soon as he heard about Darren Hughes’s dalliance and the complaint to the police, declared: “It’s a matter of justice, first and foremost. Justice ahead of politics, actually.”

Politics demanded that he dump Hughes quickly and publicly; it was bound to leak in gossipy Wellington. Justice required him to leave it to the police to sort it through with the complainant and Hughes; if he went public he would prejudge the case and thrusting the complainant into the media glare.

The politics can be debated and the great majority of media opinion appears to have been that Goff stuffed up. The justice principle is clear. The media are reinventing a type of bill of attainder where you are condemned in the kangaroo court of media entertainment even if later there is no charge and/or no conviction.

The media are supposed to be the “fourth estate”, guardians of liberty. Is putting politics before justice safeguarding liberty?