ANDREW GEDDIS AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2124

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2010

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Accuracy
Misleading

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by Andrew Geddis against the Sunday Star-Times over a front page story about a drink-driving case heard by the High Court.

Background
On June 2010, the Sunday Star-Times published a report of the case in which a woman successfully appealed her sentence. The main headline read ‘Sex attack gets drink-driver off – and a sub-heading said ‘High Court judge accepts panic defence’. A sidebar panel to the story highlighted three other cases where drivers who had been drinking were discharged without conviction.

The Complaint
Andrew Geddis complained to the Press Council that the heading, sub-heading and story were inaccurate and misleading.

In his complaint, he says the headlines imply that the driver escaped conviction and punishment for her actions, which is not the case. He says the second paragraph of the story implies that her conviction and sentence were overturned on appeal – and that was not the case.

In fact, while the woman’s disqualification from driving was overturned by the court, her sentence of community work was tripled to 300 hours. She had not appealed her conviction, only her sentence. This clarification, however, came only towards the end of the story.

Mr Geddis says the story would have misled a reader “into believing that a judge in the High Court allowed an offender to walk completely free after accepting a (rather salacious) defence to a drink-driving charge. This did not happen”.

He says the sidebar panel to the story further misleads by suggesting the woman had escaped any legal consequences.

The Newspaper’s Response
The Sunday Star-Times defends its treatment of the story on the basis that the woman was allowed to keep driving, despite being over the limit. Editor David Kemeys says, “The headline and story make it clear an important aspect of a drink-driving conviction – that drunks are taken off our roads – was overturned”.

Mr Kemeys says the woman had her disqualification from driving overturned, meaning “she got off”.

The story says that her conviction was not overturned and does not suggest the woman has escaped any legal consequences.

Discussion
The newspaper’s view is that the woman driver “got off” a drink-driving charge because her disqualification was overturned. It says the story makes it clear that she did not escape legal consequences entirely. But that is not what the main headline says and, while the sub-heading may have been accurate on its own, when it is used to expand the meaning of the first heading, it too becomes inaccurate.

The use of a sidebar panel headed ‘The ones that got away’ only reinforces the impression that the woman got off scot free.

A reader getting to the end of the story would eventually put all the pieces together – and by that time would know that the driver did not actually get off the charge at all.

The Press Council upholds the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.