HUGH STEADMAN AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2382

Council Meeting: MAY 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Hugh Steadman, on behalf and with the authority of Harmon Wilfred, claims the Sunday Star Times failed to comply with Principle 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance) of the Press Council Statement Principles in relation to an article published in print and on the Fairfax Stuff.co.nz site on March 9, 2014. The Sunday Star Times article is headed "The illegal 'alien' no one wants". The Stuff article carried a sub-head "Overstayer not welcome at home''.
The article followed pieces published between 2005 and 2011 by Sunday Star Times' sister publication The Press in relation to Mr Wilfred’s wish to remain in New Zealand.
In 2012 Mr Steadman complained to the Press Council about the 2005 - 2011 articles. The Council dismissed this complaint in decision number 2250.

The current complaint is not upheld.

Background
The article now under consideration opened with the line "We don't want him and neither do the Americans". The story referred to the fact Mr Wilfred continued to live in New Zealand despite not being authorised to do so. The story referred to the his having lived in Christchurch since 2001, having renounced his United States citizenship in 2005 and the difficulty the New Zealand authorities were having in deporting him since he was effectively "stateless". The US authorities were not willing to accept the Mr Wilfred back in that country since he was no longer a US citizen.
The story covered matters raised in the earlier articles, namely, that Mr Wilfred felt persecuted by the US Central Intelligence Agency over knowledge he had concerning CIA "fraud". The story proceeded to relate the unsuccessful attempts by Immigration New Zealand to deport him. The story referred to the Mr Wilfred’s wife (apparently a member of a wealthy Canadian family and who is entitled to reside lawfully in New Zealand), the financial failure of organisations with which he and his wife have been associated, and dealings Mr Wilfred claimed to have had with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister.
The story also recorded details of a liquidator’s report showing a substantial debt to the ERA, IRD (for GST and PAYE) and other creditors.

The basic thrust of the article however was that Mr Wilfred, a controversial figure, remains in New Zealand unlawfully because he was able to renounce his American citizenship without holding citizenship of another country.


The Complaint
Mr Steadman says the article lacks accuracy, fairness and balance. He says that it was incumbent upon the newspaper, when reporting, to refer to the "true story". Mr Steadman has submitted a 13 page summary (and numerous attachments) of the trials and tribulation Mr Wilfred and his wife have faced over many years in North America and in New Zealand. The story, if correct, verges on the incredible. Mr Wilfred believes he has been "persecuted" in North America in relation his activities which were entirely worthy.
Mr Steadman advises Mr Wilfred’s passport was "confiscated" by the American consulate in Auckland. Fearing "fell intention" on the part of the US authorities he has declined to return to the United States to reapply for American citizenship. Essentially the complainant says that the Sunday Star Times has breached the Council's statement of principles by not giving fair coverage to his plight.
Mr Steadman objects strongly to the newspaper referring to Mr Wilfred as "staying illegally” in New Zealand. He refers to certain "errors of law" made by the New Zealand Immigration Department. Mr Steadman says that because Mr Wilfred is "stateless" the New Zealand authorities have no lawful right to deport him from this country. He says "there is clear evidence that [he], as a result of his whistle blowing, has been subject to wrongful imprisonment, brutal treatment, threats against his family and threats against his life". He says "there has been no attempt [by Sunday Star Times] to assess or understand this overwhelming evidence other than to pooh pooh it as a fantasy". For the newspaper to ignore the evidence, when writing the article, demonstrates a lack of fairness and balance.
The complainant refers to Mr Wilfred’s dealings with the Minister for the Canterbury Recovery and to litigation involving the "La Famia" organisations controlled by Mr Wilfred and his wife. He says the article misrepresents the situation in connection with these aspects. All in all Mr Steadman maintains Mr Wilfred is a good and upright person, honestly motivated, and his reputation has been gravely affected by the Sunday Star Times article.

The Response
The newspaper responds on three fronts. First it says that most of the supplied "story" does not relate to the published article. Secondly it rejects the claim that the article "sneers" at Mr Wilfred and treats his account as "fantasy." Thirdly the newspaper says that its reference to the residency status in this country was accurate. The newspaper points to the published comments by the Minister of Immigration and an Immigration New Zealand officer referring to Mr Wilfred’s residency status.

The Decision
The Sunday Star Times article follows up on issues which have received coverage over several years. Certainly Mr Wilfred’s situation is unusual and worthy of attention. There is a public interest in this story being followed.
The Press Council is in no position to judge the accuracy or otherwise of Mr Wilfred’s account of his experiences prior to his arrival and during his time in New Zealand. The Council does not agree that it has been presented with "overwhelming evidence" as to the correctness of this account. Despite this the Council agrees with the newspaper when it says the account of Mr Wilfred’s difficulties in North America is not relevant to the matters actually covered in the article.
The Council does not believe the article misrepresented any issue in relation to the business dealings of Mr Wilfred. The Council has reviewed correspondence between Mr Wilfred and the Minister of the Canterbury Recovery. The article does not misrepresent this aspect either.
The Council notes that the article concluded on the basis that Mr Wilfred has grave concerns about the treatment he would receive in the US should he be deported to that country and concerns he has about "the US justice system". It does not accept that the article dismisses his story as a fantasy or that it adopts a "sneering" tone.
The Council also notes its decision of May 2012 in relation to the "over stayer" appellation, this term having been used in the articles the subject of that complaint. The Council felt then that the reference did not breach Principle 1 and use of the "illegal alien" term does not now.

The Council does not uphold the complaint.

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