COMPLAINT AGAINST OTAGO DAILY NEWS

Case Number: 2388

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Discrimination
Court Reporting
Names Suppression Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Complaint
The Otago Daily Times carried a report on the sentencing of a woman for intentionally injuring her former flatmate and partner. The latter is the complainant. The accused had pleaded guilty to the charge and the report was based on her counsel’s submission on sentencing and on comments by the judge.

The complainant, who did not attend the sentencing and was not legally represented, states she had asked Victim Support if they could ensure that she had name suppression. For reasons which are not clear this was not given, and she was particularly upset that a statement relating to a condition she was said to have suffered from should have been reported. Not being represented, she had no opportunity to refute the statement, which she advises the Press Council is inaccurate. In any event, she advises that the judge said the attempt to bring the condition into the case was discriminatory and he declined to accept it as relevant.

She noted also that counsel had told the court that the accused had moved away from Dunedin while, in fact she, the victim/complainant, had been the one to move.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor, while responding sympathetically to the complainant’s letter, and acknowledging that there is widespread concern about victims’ rights, said he was unwilling to exercise discretion on matters such as name suppression which were properly the function of the court.

In his later response to the Council he stressed the principle of open government and the media’s right to quote what is said in court. He reiterated his unwillingness to make decisions on name suppression while making it clear that the paper is prepared to consider cases in the light of particular circumstances.

He noted also that the report, which he believed to be accurate and not sensationalised, was published on page 32 of the newspaper, along with other court news from throughout the country.

Discussion
The complainant advises she asked Victim Support to apply for name suppression on her behalf. For reasons that are not clear this representation did not happen and that was unfortunate. There was no name suppression in place and the newspaper was entitled to publish the complainant’s name.

The Ministry of Justice’s Media Guide for Reporting the Courts, quoted by the editor, states ‘freedom of the media is an integral part of our system of government’. There can be no dispute with this general principle, which is further guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act.

In considering a complaint, however, the Council must also take into account its established principles; those relevant in this case would appear to be Principle 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 2 Privacy, and Principle 6 Discrimination and Diversity. The weight given to these principles, in the particular circumstances of any case, may be a matter for ethical discussion.

The concern in this case, in relation to the named condition, is that the newspaper published only the comment from counsel. If the newspaper was determined to publish this statement, in the interests of fairness and accuracy it should also have printed the response the judge [reportedly] made. Unfortunately, on the information before it the Council is unable to determine the facts of the matter.

The Council acknowledges and endorses the media’s right to report Court proceedings, and for this reason does not uphold the complaint. But the Council expresses concern that in this case the complainant has been revictimised by a gratuitous reference to a condition she may or may not have. It is for this reason that the Council has chosen not to name the complainant.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.