ANDY ESPERSEN AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2526

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Andy Espersen has complained that a court report published by The Press was in breach of Principle 1 of the Press Council principles (accuracy, fairness and balance), Principle 4 (comment and fact) and Principle 5 (columns, blogs, opinion and letters).

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint in relation to the three named principles which form the basis of the complaint by Mr Espersen.

Background

On Saturday May 28, 2016, The Press published a court report entitled “Murderer unmoved by victims’ anguish” written by journalist, Martin van Beynen in which Mr van Beynen reported on the sentencing of Russell John Tully for the murder and attempted murder of staff at WINZ Ashburton branch.

The court report included an observation by Mr van Beynen where he describes Russell Tully’s demeanour during sentencing, “How tiresome, his smooth hairless head and bloodless lips seemed to say.”

Mr van Beynen further remarks that the presiding Judge, Justice Mander noticed Russell Tully’s lack of remorse, “It is to be hoped that you might have gained some appreciation of their grief and pain, although regrettably from my observation it is not apparent that you much care.”

On Saturday May 28, 2016, Mr Espersen sent an email to ‘Letters to The Press’ outlining his disapproval of the court report written by Mr van Beynen. In a further email dated Friday 3 June, 2016, Mr Espersen sent an email to many different publications and individuals and noted in the body of the email, “The letter below was sent to The Press a week ago but was not accepted for publication…”

On Monday May 30, 2016, Mr Espersen lodged a complaint with the editor at Fairfax.

The Complaint

Mr Espersen complains about an observation made by Mr van Beynen of Russell Tully while he is listening to the victim impact statements being read out, “How tiresome, his smooth hairless head and bloodless lips seemed to say.”Mr Espersen believes that these words run counter to the statement of principles of the NZ Press Council as expressed in Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which states that publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. As well as Principle 4: Comment and Fact, this principle discusses the need to draw a clear distinction between factual information and comment or opinion and material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

In his complaint to the editor Mr Espersen does not mention Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, which also mentions the requirement for a foundation of fact.

Mr Espersen believes the remarks provided by Mr van Beynen are not objective and balanced and therefore breach the NZ Press Council principles.

Mr Espersen is concerned with Russell Tully’s state of mental health status, “Russell Tully is a sick man. He is suffering from paranoia, a paranoid type of schizophrenia.

In addition to his initial complaint to the editor, Mr Espersen sent a follow up email which went into further detail about Russell Tully’s mental health status.At the hearing Mr van Beynen captures a quote from Russell Tully where he accuses the Crown of a “major cover up” to hide the fact that he was not in his right mind. Mr Espersen is of the view that this statement “reeks with bias and unfairness.”

Mr Espersen believes the expression from Russell Tully “major cover up” shows the workings of a paranoid mind and therefore Russell Tully “is not in his right mind.”According to Mr Espersen, an experienced reporter like Mr van Beynen would “know that”.

The Response

The editor of The Press, Joanna Norris defends the observation made of Russell Tully in court by Mr van Beynen.

Ms Norris remarks that “journalists covering court act as the eyes and ears of the public to ensure a transparent court process.”Which extends to journalists observing a defendant’s conduct or appearance.

The observation of Russell Tully’s demeanour reported on by Mr van Beynen and the comment provided by Justice Mander about Russell Tully’s lack of care in Ms Norris’ view does not breach either principle 1 or principle 4. There is no mention of principle 5 in the editor’s response.

The Decision

Journalists reporting on court proceedings need to provide enough information to allow the reader to gain an insight into the conduct and behaviour of an accused. In this situation, Mr van Beynen was providing context of Russell Tully’s behaviour which he observed while the victim impact statements were being read out.

The complainant has suggested that Mr van Beynen’s observation of the defendant and his comment, “How tiresome, his smooth hairless head and bloodless lips seemed to say.” is catering to the most base emotions of the mob.Mr van Beynen was reporting on what he had observed and his comment is expressed with the use of the term ‘seemed to say.’

Principle 1 outlines the requirement that publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission.In the view of the Press Council, Mr van Beynen did not attempt to mislead or misinform readers by including his observation of Russell Tully’s demeanour when the victim impact statements were being read out.It is worth noting that the High Court found Russell Tully fit to stand trial for murder, “…there is no foundation for mental illness or impairment that would diminish your culpability either legally or morally.”

Principle 1 also requires publications be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance.Court reporting is somewhat unique in that it requires the journalist to observe and report on activity within the court room including their observation of the accused, the bench and legal counsel.In the view of the Press Council, Mr van Beynen was providing a court report based on his observations.

A report on court proceedings blends factual information with comment or more accurately observation by a journalist.There is however a threshold requiring that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. In the view of the Press Council, Mr van Beynen operated without the requirements of Principle 4.

The Press Council does not uphold this complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.