Anyone else out there disturbed by the media treatment of Sam Uffindell?
This week’s news in New Zealand has been dominated by reporting that the recent winner of the Tauranga by-election was expelled from the prestigious Auckland Kings College at age 16. Uffindell was expelled for assaulting a 13 year old, together with three other students. The incident was not taken to the police; two students were expelled and two suspended.
Does an MP deserve to be hauled over the public coals for something he did twenty-two years ago? Does this improve our political system? Something in me says that there is too much glee in the media furore and the righteousness of commentary around the situation. What sort of behaviour are we reinforcing and modelling here?
I also wonder, are we to be seen forever as our younger selves? Are most of us the same at 35 as we were at 15? Can we never be seen as ‘rehabilitated’ from an earlier crime? What does that say for people who are actually convicted of crimes in our legal system? They are forever damned?
Perhaps people are only forever damned, and fair game for attack, if they become prominent citizens. I am reminded of an ‘incident’ where a friend shared on social media a defamatory and completely unfounded post about Clarke Gayford having an affair with the family nanny. My friend said it was funny and we should see what happened as a result of sharing it further. I said that no one deserves such treatment; I felt so disappointed. As it turns out, NZME has apologised and made a payment to Gayford for a different, but equally unfounded, media report . Thank goodness there is some evidence of media being held to account.
But back to Uffindell. He disclosed the school incident to the National Party when he stood as a candidate. There is an argument being made that the mistake made was the Party’s; if they had done their selection ‘correctly’ then we would not have such substandard candidates being elected. Does this mean we might only get truly blameless people standing for Parliament? I wonder who they are? Or does it mean that we might only get people who are sufficiently thick-skinned that they can withstand the media attacks that might be launched upon them for ‘uncovered’ misdemeanours?
The media storm might have died down if journalists had not managed to dredge another skeleton from the bottom of Sam’s closet. A flatmate from his University of Otago days claims he was an aggressive bully who once pounded on her bedroom door, screaming obscenities, until she fled through her window. This incident is now being investigated by the National Party. It is possible to imagine a variety of scenarios in a student flat (none of them inspiring) where different people behaved poorly in different ways culminating in this latest ‘story’. Is there anyone else out there not particularly proud of how they might have behaved as a student at times? Who might have overindulged in alcohol or other drugs and behaved in a reprehensible fashion? Whose flat was more like a pig sty than a habitable dwelling? Don’t go into Parliament if any of these sounds like you!
We need the media to provide a check and balance in our system but the public’s delight in the fall of the great, and unpleasant interest in the details of peoples’ lives, can lead to media overstepping its role and appropriate boundaries. Should the information about Uffindell being expelled have been shared with the National Party? Together with a request that they investigate the appropriateness of their MP and the threat that, if such an investigation does not take place in a reasonable fashion, the information will be shared more widely? At what point should information of dubious worth be splurged nationwide?
Interestingly, the Uffindell story is now being taken over in the headlines by an accusation of bullying within the Labour party by Guarav Sharma, MP for Hamilton West. More MPs who bully…does the way we choose MPs mean those who bully rise to the top? Sharma implied he was a target of bullies, but now a staff member in his office is accusing Sharma of controlling behaviour himself. It’s hard for those on the outside to tell where the truth lies.
These bullying accusations bring to mind two things for me. First, of being accused myself of bullying a member of the secretarial staff when I was in my earliest professional position. I demanded something of an admin worker…I no longer remember the details, only that I asked her for some photocopying to be done urgently and, obviously, in a way that she found inappropriate. For me, the accusation by my manager came out of the blue. It also came with an accusation that I saw admin staff as lesser beings, something I have never done. I dislike hierarchy for many reasons, which is why I started my own business (so I have no manager) and have never employed anyone (because I don’t want to manage others). I may have behaved in a way that someone interpreted my actions as meaning I looked down on others, but that has never been my modus operandi.
The second, and related point, is the findings of a friend’s PhD on workplace bullying. She looked at those accused of bullying, rather than the ‘victims’. She got a lot of flack for focusing on those with the supposed power. She got even more flack for her conclusion – that the majority of ‘bullys’ exhibit poor behaviour patterns towards others, which are more prevalent when they are stressed, and which the ‘bully’s would like to know how to change. This finding has led to a separation in my mind between those who intentionally use bullying to achieve their ends, and those who carry out such behaviour thoughtlessly, but without direct intent. Neither is acceptable and both can be damaging. However, I believe these are two very different categories of behaviour, which we now lump together in our rush to call out bullys wherever we find them. Confusing very different motivations for behaviour doesn’t help us solve the problem and certainly doesn’t help identify those who would like to change.
Would I like my incident immortalised in the media? Not at all. I will going to stand for public office for many reasons so it’s unlikely to be brought up (except by me). Did the incident cause me to think about how I behaved? Certainly it did. Whether my behaviour towards others in the workplace improved, only others can comment on. However, that was the first and last time I was told of such an issue by my manager, while I was still employed.
None of us can know whether Sam Uffindell has changed his thought patterns and ‘reformed’ – there is some scepticism voiced as to whether his remorse is real. What we do know is, despite there now being every opportunity for other whistle blowers of his bullying behaviour, the number of similar incidents brought to light is both small and well in the past. Either Uffindell stopped misbehaving, or he has got much better at covering his tracks.
Has the media done anyone in this case a service in the way they have behaved? I don’t think so.