Bryce Edwards: Should MP Sarah Dowie have been named by the media?

Bryce Edwards: Should MP Sarah Dowie have been named by the media?

There’s always been a strong tension in politics between politicians’ right to privacy and the demands of political accountability. The difficult question is: which of these ideals should be paramount? This ethical question has been ever-present throughout the whole Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal. And one of the most contentious media questions has been about whether National MP Sarah Dowie should be identified publicly as the woman who apparently had an extra-marital affair with Ross for over two years.

This has now been decided, with the publication this morning on the New Zealand Herald front page of a story by David Fisher, in which he explains: “Ross, 33, has previously named Invercargill MP Dowie, 43, as one of the women with whom he had an extra-marital relationship while National MP for Botany” – see: Police probe text allegedly sent from phone of MP Sarah Dowie to Jami-Lee Ross.

Fisher reports: “Ross and Dowie were understood to have been in a relationship for more than two years. It is believed to have ended around May. During that time, Dowie and Ross were both in marriages with children each. Dowie and her husband later separated.”

Previously, Fisher explains, even though Ross had told journalists about the affair “the Herald and Newstalk ZB obscured Dowie’s name from statements made by Ross. The decision to disclose her identity now comes after police have confirmed that a text message allegedly sent from the phone of Dowie – a sitting MP – is under investigation by police.”

The text message to Ross included the statement “You deserve to die”. Fisher explains why this is important: “The text message raised questions over whether there was a breach of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, passed under National and voted for by Dowie. The law regulated digital communications, including text messages, making it illegal to urge someone to self-harm.”

The police investigation was revealed on Tuesday by Newshub and Stuff – you can see both reports and interviews here – see Tova O’Brien’s Jami-Lee Ross says abusive text triggered his mental breakdown, and Tracy Watkins’ Police investigate text sent to Jami-Lee Ross as disgraced MP eyes return to Parliament.

Both of these items revealed important parts of the story. For example, Ross is reported in Watkins’ story as explaining his suicidal feelings on the night that he read the text message: “I just didn’t feel like existing any more, I didn’t feel like I had anything left. So on that night the police were contacted. I didn’t know at the time but they had deployed the police dogs, there was a police helicopter, there were ground units looking for me, they had stopped the train on the train tracks because I told my wife that I was on train tracks.”

The media’s decision to identify Dowie

There will be plenty of debate about whether the media outlets have done the right thing in “outing” Sarah Dowie. For instance, on Twitter, lobbyist Neale Jones‏ responded to the news: “This makes me uneasy. I realise a police investigation does create a public interest, but given what we know about how JLR victimises women I don’t think Dowie’s name should have been released.”

Yet the decision by media outlets to name Dowie became virtually inevitable once a police investigation into the texting became known. After all, has there ever been a case of the media not identifying an MP who is known to be under investigation by the police?

As Barry Soper has explained today, “It’s not the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s job to protect MPs when a police investigation is under way” – see: Sarah Dowie, the police inquiry, and the text from her phone. Soper, who is the political editor of Newstalk ZB – the radio stablemate of the Herald – also adds: “The decision to name Dowie in no way countenances the behaviour of Ross towards the women who have anonymously made claims of harassment and bullying against him.”

The contents of the text to Ross are also republished by Soper: “Before you interpret this as your usual narc self – don’t. Interpret it as me – you are a f***ing ugly MF pig. Shave that f***ing tuft of hair off your f***ing front of skull head and own your baldness – you sweaty, fat, toe inturned mutant. You deserve to die and leave your children in peace and your wife out of torment – f***er!”

Virtually all other media outlets have followed the Herald’s lead today. For example, Stuff’s political editor Tracy Watkins published the following story: Sarah Dowie named as National MP investigated over text to Jami-Lee Ross. In this, Watkins reports “National’s Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie has been widely linked to the text on social media but has only been named by news media now because of the police investigation. She has not responded to texts and calls and Stuff has been told she will not be speaking publicly.”

The Herald has also followed up David Fisher’s revelation with another report about how the police have not yet contacted Dowie in their investigations, and National Party activists in Dowie’s Southland electorate aren’t talking to the media about the issue – see: Text message investigation: No immediate show of support for National MP Sarah Dowie over Jami-Lee Ross text.

Previously, Dowie’s local newspaper, The Southland Times, has taken a close interest in the story, publishing two very sharp editorials aimed at the local MP, but without identifying her. The first, Another issue arises from the Ross case, raised the question of whether the then-anonymous MP should face charges for her text under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. The newspaper concluded: “When more information is provided, as it must be, the appropriate consequences for the text sender – including whether she can stay in her role – then become a legitimate issue.”

A second Southland Times editorial was much more pointed, accusing the unnamed local MP of “hypocrisy” – see: ‘Moving on’ is not acceptable. The editorial included a list of questions for the MP and her party:

• “Has a separate investigation been launched to speak to the MP who reportedly sent his text?
• What discussions has the party had with the MP who reportedly sent a text like that?
• Has that MP been censured, faced internal discipline, or been stood down from duties? If no action has been taken by the party, why not?
• Does the National Party believe that the text message sent breached the Harmful Digital Communication Act?
• Does the National Party still believe the MP, who reportedly sent the text, is still fit to be an MP and represent the National Party, given they reportedly sent a text saying someone deserved to die?
• Has the MP offered to stand down? Or, are they still carrying out their duties as normal?”

Late last year I also covered the issue of whether the media should, or would, identify Sarah Dowie as the MP mixed up in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal – see: The Media’s fraught role in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal. This included the different views of a number of people on the issue of identifying Dowie.

Probably the most interesting was that of veteran journalist Graham Adams, who wrote the following on Facebook in favour of naming Dowie: “the female MP whose name has been frequently mentioned on social media represents a conservative electorate, is socially conservative herself and has promoted family values from her first days in Parliament. I think the public should always been told when an MP’s publicly professed values are at sharp variance to their own private behaviour. That is an obligation the media should fulfil. Furthermore, she has no right to privacy when she has anonymously and publicly shamed Jami-Lee Ross in the Newsroom piece by Melanie Reid. She’s an MP and a highly educated professional whose actions should be held to account. If she had any courage, she would come clean herself.”

In another article, Adams also raised questions about whether the media was being inconsistent or cowardly in avoiding publishing the MPs’ name – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga: Questions around cover-ups continue.

The possibility of Sarah Dowie being prosecuted

Will Sarah Dowie actually be prosecuted by the police for the text to Jami-Lee Ross? There are certainly some who think this is over the top – for example, rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton tweeted this morning in response: “FFS. What a lot of nonsense, and a shameful waste of @nzpolice resources.”

In David Fisher’s article today, the analysis of Netsafe chairperson Rick Shera is reported: “Shera said the new law allowed serious emotional distress to be a trigger for action, meaning it could be enough for conviction – or a civil case – if the recipient of a message seriously considered self-harm. In criminal cases, it was necessary to show the ‘intent’ behind sending the message. The context in which it was sent, the resilience of the person who received it and the age of the people involved were also factors considered. The legislation shows someone convicted of inciting someone to self-harm or suicide could face up to three years in prison.”

But there is a “high bar for prosecution” according to Lucy Bennett’s article, National MPs staying quiet on latest Jami-Lee Ross foray into the public. Reporting on the views of Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker, Bennett says: “Any prosecution would have to take into consideration the context in which the comment was made but under the Act, a single text message inciting suicide could be considered a harmful digital communication.”

Cocker adds: “Whether a person complains is a significant factor for the police in considering whether to take a prosecution because so often with armful digital communications stuff it’s wrapped up in very personal, complex cases where prosecution may not be in everybody’s best interests. Police have got to take that into consideration”.

Blogger No Right Turn sees some poetic justice in the police investigation, because “Back in 2015, she voted for National’s Harmful Digital Communications Act, an overly-broad law which criminalised exposing corrupt politicians on the internet. Now, she’s being investigated for possible prosecution under that law” – see: Hoist by her own petard.

He also says: “A lot depends on what exactly the police decide to charge her with. Because the ‘inciting suicide’ offence carries a maximum penalty of three years, meaning that if Dowie is convicted, she would automatically lose her seat in Parliament. And if the Police don’t charge her with that, its going to look like another case of them going soft on politicians, just as they have done in the past.”

David Farrar has blogged about both the media naming Dowie and the police investigating her, and is highly dismissive – see: Dowie named. In terms of the investigation, Farrar doesn’t believe there’s any chance of a prosecution: “The idea that a solitary ‘I hate you and wish you were dead’ text message as a relationship broke up could be in breach of the law, is risible. If so, hundreds of thousands of people are probably also criminals. Merely saying I wish you were dead is not the same as incitement.”

Finally, the must-read Jami-Lee Ross story of the week is his 2600-word statement on Facebook: Leaving bitterness and hatred behind.