Case Number: 881

Council Meeting: MAY 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Central Hawke's Bay Mail

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint relating to comments on the private prosecution brought against a police constable following the shooting of a man in Waitara.

The complaint involved a column, entitled “As I See It”, regularly written by the editor of the Central Hawke’s Bay Mail Mr Owen Jones. In his column of February 12, Mr Jones opened with a comment on the private prosecution.

“I’m amazed,” he wrote, “that most of those appearing for the prosecution in the Waitara murder trial appear to have an axe to grind with the police. This may not be true, it’s just the way it seems to me.

“I’m also amazed that even though they weren’t at the coalface, facing the constable’s dilemma, they say they would have acted differently and lives would have been saved.”
Mr Jones then went on to discuss other sources of amazement.

Mr Pennefather, a former police officer now resident in Takapau, who appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the case, said this was clearly a reference to himself and lodged a complaint.

His complaint was in two parts. First, he said the column was an attempt to undermine the credibility of a witness in a matter which was then still before the court and so was sub judice. Whether or not an article is sub judice is a matter for the judicial system and not something on which the Council can adjudicate.

Secondly, Mr Pennefather said the column was unbalanced. As well as questioning his motives for giving evidence it was scornful of whether prosecution witnesses such as himself would have handled the situation better than the constable in question.

In fact, the reason he was asked to give evidence had nothing to do with his longstanding complaint against the police, but because in the course of his 25 year police career he had on five occasions faced armed offenders and successfully disarmed them without serious injury to anyone.

Mr Jones, in response, said his column was not a dig at Mr Pennefather. “I just asked how anybody who was not in the situation that [the constable] found himself in would know exactly what they would do. Everybody is different and no two situations are exactly the same.”

The Council noted that the column by Mr Jones was clearly an opinion piece and it has frequently indicated that except in the most exceptional circumstances editors must be free to comment on matters of interest. In this case the point raised by Mr Jones was not unreasonable.

The complaint was not upheld.