The chief science advisor to the Prime Minister has just issued a damning commentary on the way in which the media presents 'information' about crime and punishment in New Zealand

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser has released a report stating that for the last 20 years, the media narrative about crime and punishment has been driven by dogma.

More specifically, he said: (link to his full report).

“We keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data, responding to shifting policies and media panics, instead of evidence-based approaches to prevention, intervention, imprisonment and rehabilitation”.

What does he mean by this? Google defines dogma as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “a fixed, especially religious belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without any doubts”.

Here are three of the main beliefs Gluckman says so many Kiwis have accepted without question:

1) “Crime is caused by individuals who need harsh punishment”

Gluckman says the reality is that “crime is a complex issue with multiple driving factors related to individual, social and systemic contexts” (p.14). He points out that “childhood trauma is associated with poor mental health” and “91% of people in prison in New Zealand have a mental illness or substance use disorder” (p.16).

Gluckman notes that in prison, “mental health and substance-use disorders often go undetected and under-treated”. He adds “There is no evidence of the supposed deterrent effect of harsher sentences” (p. 10).

2) “Crime is increasing” (he says 71% of Kiwis believe this)

The reality is that “New Zealand’s recorded crime levels are the lowest seen since the late 1970s” (p.5)

“As people have limited personal experience of crime, news media depictions can disproportionally affect their views. Media coverage focuses primarily on homicides and other rare drug, sex, or violence related crimes, especially involving high-profile or high-status individuals or children (whether as victims or perpetrators)”.

“Crime reporting makes up to 70% of some days news coverage in the New Zealand herald and averages 31% of daily news coverage … Data on the actual patterns and causes of crime are rarely covered not communicated by officials in newsworthy ways.” (p. 14)

3) “Crime will fall by putting (more) offenders into prison”.

Gluckman points out; “This does not lead to lowered crime rates…(as) it is well established that incarceration rates are predominantly independent of crime rates” (p.5).

He also notes that; “Prison growth has been driven largely by tough on crime policies from successive administrations on both sides of the political spectrum encouraged by vocal, professional lobbyists… Crime rates are falling but these are not related to prison policy” (p.9)

Rather than reducing crime, Gluckman says the evidence suggests prisons are little more than “extremely expensive training grounds” for further offending.

Who is the authority figure?

So who is the authority figure espousing these myths that New Zealanders have been gullible enough to believe? Gluckman doesn’t mention him by name but to me the answer is obvious: Garth McVicar, a farmer from the Hawkes Bay who has no qualifications in law or criminology or anything else related to penal policy, but who has been pumping out a simplistic, one-eyed "solution" to criminal offending for 20 years.

According to Gluckman's report, the New Zealand media has been feeding us dogmatic beliefs such as McVicar's for twenty years. The report describes in detail how ‘penal populism,’ driven by the media, has led politicians to pass more tough on crime laws and build more prisons. In Gluckman's view, all this media attention has led a large proportion of the public to swallow the "tough on crime" belief system hook, line and sinker.

Much of Gluckman’s report is focused on the growing cost of locking up so many people. He is clearly horrified at the “extremely high cost” of using prisons as the primary response to crime and describes this process as “a waste of public resources” (p.12).

The definition of fake news

So have the media been presenting us with what amounts to fake news? Wikipedia describes fake news as:

“A type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.”

Yellow journalism describes media outlets...

“that present little or no legitimate, well-researched news and use eye-catching headlines for increased sales.”

Does Gluckman call the dogma and beliefs espoused by Garth McVicar and the New Zealand media fake news or yellow journalism? Not in those words exactly – he’s far too diplomatic. But in my opinion, that is what he appears to be saying.

The point is fake news was not invented by Donald Trump – New Zealand has been exposed to Garth McVicar’s version of it for over 20 years. It’s time to get back to reality and look at the evidence; evidence which is described in detail in Gluckman’s report.

So if you think he’s right; and if you agree it’s time to base justice policy on data rather than dogma, then clearly we do not need the 1,500 bed mega-prison proposed at Waikeria. Its Time to Cut the Prison Population.

Comments (6)

by barry on April 05, 2018

I like Gluckman, but why is he saying this now?

Why didn't he say it 8 years ago, when the government was introducing the three strikes legislation?

by Roger Brooking on April 06, 2018
Roger Brooking

Perhaps because he had only been in the job for 12 months at that point - and thought he should restrict his advice to scientific matters as per his brief. I agree with him that our justice and penal policy has been driven by dogma but his role is defined on his website thus:

My primary task is to give the Prime Minister strategic and operational advice on science and science policy issues. 

Penal policy is hardly a scientific issue.


by Charlie on April 07, 2018

Gluckman's a bit light on the details regarding his "evidence based approaches". What exactly is he referring to?

So he says the incarceration rate has increased and crime is falling. I know correlation isn't causation but, well....


by Andin on April 08, 2018

The main reason McVicar gets any coverage at all is some "media" under the guise of giving both sides of an argument go to him for comment. The truth or facts of a situation never lies at a convenient midpoint between two apparently opposing views. Sometimes one side can be completely wrong, just as the three points you highlight are.

by Roger Brooking on April 22, 2018
Roger Brooking

@Charlie: The level of crime and the rate of imprisonment are driven by entirely different factors. In general, crime stems by individual, family and social risk factors most often associated with poverty, parental abuse & neglect, alcohol & drug addiction, poor mental health. etc.

The growing prison population is largely the result of what criminologists call 'moral panic' - political responses to isolated incidents of violent crime (blown out of proportion by the SST). The murder of Christie Marceau in 2011 is a classic example. See: How the murder of Christie Marceau led to 1,500 more people in prison.

by Roger Brooking on April 22, 2018
Roger Brooking

@Andin. Totally agree with you. But I would add that the mainstream media are lazy. Rather than conduct proper investigative journalism, they provide superficial 'he said' 'she said' versions of reality. All they're really looking for is a catchy headline to sell more newspapers, make more profit etc. 

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