Rape accusations, a controversial interview, and a social media storm: here’s a look at how the Roast Busters scandal shaped online activism.
Online communities, with their potential to rally millions, have collapsed the space between the powerful and the powerless, making it easier for citizens to come together and demand change. Organised marches, written petitions, and letters to your MPs are giving way to status updates, viral videos and hashtags.
Critics have argued that social media activism only motivates people to get involved in feel-good clicking rather than making actual sacrifices. It’s true that using a hashtag doesn’t equate to staging a sit-in, but social media campaigns are having an effect.
The pressure to increase our refugee intake saw John Key go from a flat out “no” to a “maybe” to an announcement that we would take 750 Syrians over the next two and a half years. We’re yet to see whether the Red Peak and Into The River campaigns will change the minds of the officials who decide the rules.
Because we can't save millions, doesn't mean we shouldn't save hundreds #doublethequota— Martyn Bradbury (@CitizenBomber) September 3, 2015
It's not a flag that defines us as a nation, it's how we treat others #doublethequota— Mike McRoberts (@MrMikeMcRoberts) September 5, 2015
Two years ago, when radio hosts John Tamihere and Willie Jackson waded into the controversy swirling around a group of Aucklanders accused of raping young women, social media activism wasn’t as common.
The mass pullout of advertisers, and the subsequent end to their longstanding talkback show on RadioLive, marked an unprecedented change in what could be achieved through social media uproar.
In November 2013, New Zealand first learnt about the Roast Busters; a group of young men who boasted online about sex, allegedly with drunk and underage girls. Two of the group’s members, Beraiah Hales and Joseph Parker, became poster boys of the story.
The pair took to websites like Facebook and Ask.fm to name and shame the young women they’d had sex with, some believed to be as young as 13. In a video that emerged on YouTube the boys openly spoke about what they did: "We don't choose the roast, the roast chooses us ...They know what we're like, they know what they're in for.”
What followed next was an avalanche of outrage and disgust. There were at least 11,600 public mentions of “Roast Busters” online in the month the story surfaced. Twitter immediately stood out as the site most used to talk about the case.
A breakdown of over 7,000 tweets with the words “Roast Busters” found the the largest group consisted of people who expressed anger and frustration (about 32 per cent). That anger only got worse when after John Tamihere and Willie Jackson spoke to a young woman on their talkback show about the case.
During the 12-minute interview with “Amy”, Tamihere and Jackson were accused of placing blame on the alleged victims, undermining the seriousness of the accusations, and unfairly grilling the 18-year-old.
Tamihere asked Amy when she lost her virginity: “How free and easy are you kids these days out there? You know, like you were 14, yeah?”
Amy said she was a friend of one of the Roast Busters’ victims. Jackson told her the girls in the case “shouldn’t be drinking anyway” and claimed that since some of the girls had consented, the boys couldn’t be considered rapists.
“No, but if they’re still raping other girls then it does make them rapists,” replied Amy.
Jackson then tried to ascertain if rape was possible when the girls considered the boys “good looking”.
Two years on, the shaming of women on-air is still alive and well. Just last week, two George FM hosts were suspended after trawling through the Instagram accounts of young New Zealand women on-air, referencing their names and calling them “rank” and “hoes”.
Last month, The Edge radio hosts asked women to “shove cucumbers down their throats to see how far they would go”, simulating oral sex, according to a report on The Spinoff.
Tamihere and Jackson were dealing with the issue of rape and their interview hit a particularly raw nerve. Word of the Amy interview spread swiftly and hundreds of appalled listeners tweeted their disgust, but one tweeter decided to take matters into his own hands.
FANNING THE FLAMES
Blogger Giovanni Tiso is the man credited with spearheading the campaign against RadioLive and was outspoken about his desire to see the hosts taken off air.
Listening to the interview on Radiolive shocked Tiso. “They were bullying in tone and “incredibly arrogant,” he says. “It’s completely unacceptable to ask a young woman on air when she first had sex.”
I was crying with rage by the end of that segment. My son thought I had heard some tragic news.— Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) November 5, 2013
I don't think I have heard anything like that in my life. Not from Michael Laws, not from anyone else in media. The hosts need to go.— Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) November 5, 2013
Tiso, who also works as a writer and translator, arrived from Italy about 20 years ago after his Kiwi partner convinced him to do his PhD in Wellington.
He’s known for his politically charged Twitter presence, never backing down to anyone. He’s been called everything from a Twitter terrorist to a racist, a bully and a destroyer of free speech, but knows it could be worse.
“One of the ironies of this thing is the threats of violence I got about the RadioLive controversy would be been much greater and unsustainable if I was a woman,” he says.
The day after the RadioLive interview, Tiso recorded Jackson and Tamihere’s show, taking note of all the companies that advertised on the programme. It may not have been the ones that aired during the “Amy” interview, but he felt the ones that appeared the day after were implicitly supporting the show.
“People have said I organised a boycott. I didn’t.
“I actually just asked them if they were planning to continue advertising. For me, for my standards, it was very polite,” he laughs.
The reason for doing it was simple; Tiso wanted to stir the pot to keep the story going. It wasn’t about RadioLive at all, it was about a culture where people can rape women, boast about it and nothing will happen.
LISTEN: Giovanni Tiso on RNZ's Checkpoint
This wasn’t the first time media personalities in New Zealand have sparked outrage with unpopular comment.
The late Paul Holmes, arguably the king of foot-in-mouth, once referred to the United Nations Secretary-General as a "cheeky darkie" during his radio show. A year later, he described politician Tariana Turia as a "confused bag of lard" and in 2012 labelled Waitangi Day as "loony Maori fringe self-denial day".
If Holmes was the king, then Paul Henry is a very promising heir to the throne. He’s known for calling Susan Boyle “retarded” and suggesting asylum seekers should "starve to death". He also questioned whether the Governor-General was "even a New Zealander” and ridiculed New Delhi's chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
“It's so appropriate, because she's Indian, so she'd be dick-in-shit wouldn't she. Do you know what I mean? Walking along the street ... it's just so funny."
There were apologies, stand-downs, and even a sponsor withdrawal, but there wasn’t the type of social media outcry we see today.
As the numbers of people signing up to social media platforms grow, so does their influence. Nearly two million Kiwis use Facebook every day, checking the site an average of 14 times daily. Twitter’s reach is more humble with about 390,000 users - or 8.7 per cent of the population, according to research company Nielsen.
But Twitter’s demographic does typify an influential subset of society. There are high numbers of government officials, executives and skilled workers, and the majority of users over 35 and living in the main centres.
FEELING THE NOISE
The Broadcasting Standards Authority never received a single complaint about the RadioLive interview, but what happened next had more far-reaching consequences for the talkback hosts.
One by one, 13 business announced they would be withdrawing their ads from Tamihere and Jackson’s show. Two days later, parent company MediaWorks said the pair were being taken off air for the rest of the year.
Lindsay Mouat, CEO of the Association of New Zealand Advertisers, says the speed at which advertisers withdrew from RadioLive is something he’s never seen before.
“If you went back ten years, it would have been unlikely to have happened or at the same level. The noise around that escalated so quickly.”
It took less than a week for Tamihere and Jackson to be taken off air after their interview. Compare that to the months it takes the Broadcasting Standards Authority to release their decisions. Additionally, BSA complaints are only upheld about a fifth of the time.
People can now respond almost instantaneously to controversies and their comments aren’t always deep or well-formed, says Mouat. But it doesn’t matter because the speed, volume and publicness of remarks can be more damaging to a company’s reputation than a formal complaint.
“Most companies would be actively listening to what people are saying in a whole range of media. If you're not, something can turn loose very, very quickly.”
According to records kept by Tiso, 10 out of the 30 advertisers he contacted said they would pull advertising from either the show or the entire station.
Mad Butcher, AA Insurance, Yellow, Countdown, Spark, Shanton, The Finance Marshall, Freeview, Noel Leeming and Vodafone all pulled. Another three companies – ANZ, Briscoes and Ebborn Law – hadn’t been sent emails by Tiso, but also withdrew.
ANZ was among the first companies to announce its withdrawal. Peter Parussini, head of corporate affairs, says after hearing the interview he knew he had to act.
“We thought, morally, we don’t agree with what those kids have done and so therefore, morally, we don’t like the position that these radio hosts have taken.”
We have decided to suspend all advertising w/ Radio Live over broadcast comments about the 'Roast Busters' more here: http://t.co/amblEl2g2k— ANZ New Zealand (@ANZ_NZ) November 7, 2013
But it wasn’t just the interview; when the RadioLive controversy started, Parussini and his social media team watched the war of words break out on Twitter, and the growing public reaction pushed him to make a decision quickly.
“I think the enormity of the issue plus the way social media works played a crucial role in pushing us to come to a decision and come to a decision faster than we probably would have 15 or 20 years ago.”
For Spark, one of the country’s biggest telecommunications companies, the decision was not about morals, but one based on what their customers wanted.
“Look, we'd like to think we've got morals, but it wasn't a moralistic stance in that sense,” says general manager of corporate relations, Andrew Pirie.
“It wasn't just the fact that we had a blogger making an issue about it; it was actually resonating with a lot of the people on social media who are within our customer base.”
The telecommunication giant didn’t pull its ads immediately and what finally pushed Pirie to make a decision was the lack of a proper apology from the hosts.
“They had a chance to either retract their comments or soften their position … quite frankly, it seemed almost an attitude of putting two fingers up saying ‘we're not interested’. That's when we just felt it went up a few notches.”
'A POINTLESS MORAL CRUSADE'
Tamihere won’t talk about the specifics of the Roast Busters interview, but is quick to state that most people have no clue of the context.
“Talkback is not an interview. You voluntarily ring in, you voluntarily put your name up, and you voluntarily share your opinion.”
“People were inflamed by a piece of information that was carefully clipped out of a three-hour conversation and the rest is history. Now when sanity prevails, you get a whole different look at it.”
The former Labour MP has garnered a reputation for boundary-pushing comments. While serving in Parliament he was reported to have said he was sick of hearing about Jews being gassed and killed and was also accused of referring to female colleagues as “front bums”.
Tamihere describes the backlash over the Roast Busters interview as a pointless moral crusade aimed at silencing those who pushed the envelope.
“When you’re running a talkback show – which I’ve got to say is a mind-numbing job at the best of times – you have to look at whether you’re going to do the same-old, or push the boundaries.”
The outrage was built on a lynch mob mentality that garnered traction amongst the “beautiful people” on social media, he says sarcastically.
“A bit like Lord of the Flies, no one knows why they jumped in and started kicking that kid [Piggy] on the ground, but after the madness they reflect on it and think to themselves, ‘oh God, why did I kick him?’”
Piggy is known as the voice of reason in Lord of the Flies – something Tamihere believes he offers too by asking the hard questions and refusing to stick to the status quo. He certainly doesn’t think he should be silenced by advertisers.
“Who in ANZ is the moral custodian that manages this country’s talking and thinking heads? I would understand if it was the Catholic Church, I would understand if it was Mahatma Gandhi, but ANZ bank I don’t understand.”
LIVING WITH THE AFTERMATH
Tamihere has no plans to return to the media, saying if he wanted to be a commentator, we would’ve heard a lot from him already.
Earlier this year, MediaWorks apologised to Tamihere over the controversy after he threatened to sue. Out of everyone involved, he was the only one laughing to the bank.
“I had a very handsome settlement. I’m very pleased with where I landed and I moved on.”
Last year, Jackson returned to the studio, hosting a new talkback show on RadioLive with former TVNZ personality, Alison Mau.
Hales and Parker, the young men at the centre of the Roast Busters scandal, went silent after the story broke. Hales reappeared last month, making a public Facebook announcement about his plans to start a record label. Parker is thought to have left Auckland to live in the United States.
Despite the success of the RadioLive campaign, social media campaigns don’t always work. Earlier this year, Tiso took on Mike Hosking after the Seven Sharp host suggested the woman at the centre of the ponytail gate was being “selfish”.
“Hosking's comments were roundly condemned, but I don't think they caused the same level of outrage. Fair enough, too, I think what Willie and JT said was worse and they said it at the worst possible time,” he says.
Like the RadioLive case, Tiso went straight for the advertisers, contacting the major sponsor of the show, Rabobank.
“I really wasn't expecting Rabobank to pull the advertising, but contacted them because we've reached the sad state of affairs in commercial television where sponsors are more responsive and responsible than editors and broadcasters.”
Tiso never heard back from the CEO of TVNZ about his complaints. He’s gone on to lodge a complaint with the Broadcasting Standards Authority – something he didn’t do after Tamihere and Jackson’s interview
“Their show was off the air in a matter of days, it became redundant to lay a complaint. By contrast, it's nearly five months since the Seven Sharp show was aired and the BSA hasn't reached a conclusion yet.”
Additional research and analytics by media strategist/MSc student Henry Lyons