CHARLES PIERSON AGAINST NZPA

Case Number: 2092

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NZPA

Ruling Categories: Court Reporting
Privilege
Accuracy
Misleading
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint from Charles Pierson against the New Zealand Press Association concerning a press report it distributed about food poisoning at a Gisborne hotel.

Background
On Christmas Day 2006 a number of diners became ill after eating a buffet lunch at the Bushmere Arms. In June 2008, restaurateur Robin Pierson was convicted in the Gisborne District Court of selling contaminated turkey. He appealed against his conviction to the High Court in February 2009. The appeal failed. He then sought leave to appeal the High Court’s decision, but this was declined.

The Complaint
Meanwhile, Charles Pierson complained to the Press Council that the New Zealand Press Association in May this year published an inaccurate account of the High Court decision involving his brother.

Relying on a press statement from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority issued after the court’s ruling, NZPA sent a report to various member newspapers. The complainant said this report was inaccurate; it had deceived the public, vilified Robin Pierson and caused economic damage to the Bushmere Arms.

Charles Pierson said the report stated that Christmas Day diners fell ill after eating tainted turkey, but the court did not establish that the food served at the Bushmere Arms on Christmas Day 2006 had caused illness. Neither the NZPA report nor the original press statement from the Food Safety Authority mentioned the presence of norovirus found in faecal samples from diners and the part it had played in the outbreak. The authority and NZPA had misled the public by reporting that poor food handling practices were to blame for diners being ill.

He said a faecal sample from a diner had tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus. This proved the virus was present and had caused illness among the diners.

Mr Pierson asked NZPA to withdraw its report, acknowledge that the case against Robin Pierson was circumstantial, that faecal samples had tested positive for norovirus and that all food served that day at the Bushmere Arms was safe to eat.


The Response
NZPA declined to do that. Editor Nick Brown said he believed the report of May 5 was an accurate summary of the findings of two courts that resulted from a New Zealand Food Safety Authority prosecution.

He said NZPA had accurately reported a privileged statement from a statutory authority (the New Zealand Food Safety Authority) and issued a ‘public interest’ message about food handling.

Mr Brown said the High Court had not only upheld the original conviction, it had ordered reparation to be paid to diners who fell ill, and ordered Robin Pierson to pay a high level of prosecution costs.

Discussion
Three courts have now investigated the Bushmere Arms Christmas dinner incident and the conviction against Robin Pierson stands. The Press Council cannot re-litigate the case, but can consider only the specific complaint about the NZPA report of the High Court ruling that upheld the conviction and awarded reparation to diners who had eaten the turkey in question.

NZPA relied on the press release from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority –one of the two parties in contention – rather than preparing its own report from the High Court’s decision. This can be an unsafe practice and while the report quoted an authority spokesperson, it gave Robin Pierson no chance to make any comment.

However, in this case, the Press Council finds that the NZPA report was an accurate reflection of the High Court ruling.

Conclusion
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

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