JACQUELINE SPERLING AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2340

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Bias
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy

Ms Sperling complains that the Sunday Star-Times displayed inaccuracy, bias and misrepresentation in an article published in that newspaper on June 16, 2013 and also online. She believes that she was deliberately and maliciously targeted.

She also complains that the reporter in question made insufficient attempt to contact her for her side of the story.

The Press Council finds minor inaccuracy in the article but overall does not uphold the complaint.

Background
Ms Sperling writes a blog at www.wonderfulnow.blogspot.com. As a result of material posted in the blog, legal action was taken against Ms Sperling in 2012 by Deborah Brown and Madeleine Flannagan and in 2013 by Ms Flannagan alone. In both instances they sought restraining orders under the Harassment Act 1997.

Both cases were heard by Judge David Harvey and are of considerable legal interest for his ruling that the Harassment Act is capable of applying to online behaviour. In the 2012 case he declined to grant the application for a restraining order, but in the 2013 case he granted an order which among other things prohibited Ms Sperling from publishing further material about Ms Flannagan and required her to remove specified posts and comments from her blog.

On June 16, 2013, the Sunday Star-Times published a report of the case under the headline “Biting blog given last post using stalker law”. The report included a statement that Ms Sperling, who had “created colourful headlines when she outed herself as an ex-methamphetamine addict, ex-prostitute and ex-girlfriend of Michael Laws” was ordered to take down nearly 100 posts and comments.

There was also reference to the unsuccessful action in 2012. The article reported that no restraining order was granted but that “Judge Harvey ordered some posts to be taken offline”.

Before the article was published, the reporter made some attempt to contact Ms Sperling for comment. The Sunday Star-Times advises that the reporter telephoned her home and spoke to a person who said that Ms Sperling was in hospital. Ms Sperling says that no such phone call was made. However it is undisputed that he then contacted her via Twitter. She told him she was in hospital and asked him to email her. He did not email and there was no further attempt to contact her before publication.

The complaint
Ms Sperling complains about three specific instances of inaccuracy

1. She did not out herself as an ex-methamphetamine addict and ex-prostitute. She was outed by Michael Laws when he publicised their relationship. In relation to the Sunday Star-Times claim that she outed herself as a former methamphetamine addict during an interview immediately after Mr Laws’ statement, she said she was blackmailed by the Sunday Star-Times into speaking to them.

2. The 2012 case did not result in a requirement for her to remove any material from her blog.

3. Judge Harvey did not, in the 2013 restraining order, require her to remove 100 posts from her blog

She also complains that the headline is misleading in that it would lead readers to believe that she had stalked someone.

In addition, Ms Sperling complains that insufficient effort was made to contact her for comment before the story was published. She says that her email address and contact details are clearly stated on her blog, and that they are also known to Ms Flannagan (who obviously was contacted for comment before publication).

Finally, Ms Sperling says the errors were not accidental and were part of a malicious attempt to discredit her after she had approached the Herald on Sunday “in regards to [Michael] Laws attempting to talk me I to returning to prostitution”. She says “Laws is an employee of the SST and this is just a continuation of the harassment that he has subjected me to since ending the relationship.”

In general, Ms Sperling also comments that the article focuses on her past and fails to mention that she is now a university student half way through her degree with straight A grades.

The Sunday Star-Times response

The Sunday Star-Times did not accept that there were inaccuracies in its article. The deputy editor, Michael Donaldson, stated that

1. Michael Laws made a public announcement about his relationship with Ms Sperling, but referred to her only as “a woman”. Ms Sperling was first named in this context by Fairfax Media after an interview in which she acknowledged she was a former methamphetamine addict. Once her name was made public, people could find her blogs where she admitted to having worked as a prostitute.
2. There was a court order for the removal of Ms Sperling’s posts. In 2012 Judge Harvey stated that there was no need for an order because the offending posts had already been taken down, but in 2013 he ordered the removal of specified posts and comments.
3. The article did not say Ms Sperling had been ordered to remove 100 posts: it said she had been ordered to take down nearly 100 posts and comments. The restraining order specified 26 posts and 72 comments to be removed.

He also submitted that the headline was simply “a witty headline that conveys that various posts made to the blog have been ordered to be removed under stalking laws.” He considered that “stalking” is a term which can fairly be used as an equivalent to harassment and that in any event it was quite clear from the article that there was no allegation that Ms Sperling was physically stalking people.

He considered the reporter had made reasonable attempts to contact Ms Sperling. He called her home phone number and was told she was in hospital. He then tracked her on Twitter and asked her for a phone number. She responded that she did not know “how to send messages via Twitter on my ph” and asked him to email her. He then asked for her email address but received no response.

Mr Donaldson strenuously denies the allegation of malice or retaliation for Ms Sperling’s approach to the Herald on Sunday. The story came out of the court case. In any event Mr Laws is not an employee of the Sunday Star-Times: he is contracted to write a column and has no interaction with the editorial team over the content of the rest of the newspaper.


Discussion


1. The complaint of three specific inaccuracies

a. The details of Ms Sperling’s “outing” are not entirely clear. It is undisputed that Mr Laws’ initial statement did not refer to her by name, or that in the Sunday Star-Times interview she disclosed that she had formerly been a methamphetamine addict.

It seems that Ms Sperling’s name may have become public before the interview – she refers to seeing her face on the six o’clock news as the first she was aware of media scrutiny. However she does not say that the television report described her as a former methamphetamine addict, and it seems more likely that particular information emerged at the interview.

Ms Sperling now says that she was blackmailed into giving the interview, but it does not appear that she made any such complaint at the time. Moreover, even if she felt under some compulsion to give the interview, it is difficult to see how she could have been compelled to disclose her former addiction if she did not wish to do so.

Members of the Press Council expressed differing views on whether “outing” requires some positive action on the part of the subject, since it does not appear that Ms Sperling deliberately directed public attention to the information on her blog. The general view was that by disclosing her identity as the writer of the blog, she was effectively putting her connection with its contents into the public domain.

b. Mr Donaldson is correct in saying that the article referred to nearly 100 posts and comments, not to 100 posts. The restraining order lists all the relevant posts (26) and comments (72). Ms Sperling says that the comments include some not made by her. This is correct, but even so she was directed to remove them. There is no inaccuracy in this part of the article.

c. It is clear from the context that the report that “Judge Harvey ordered some posts be taken offline . . .” refers to the 2012 and not the 2013 decision. There was no order at the conclusion of the 2012 proceedings. To that extent, the report was inaccurate.

2. The headline

The phrase “anti-stalking law” is commonly used to describe the Harassment Act 1997, and the Act covers most behaviours that could be described as stalking. However the definition of “harassment” in the Act is quite wide and includes several types of behaviour that would not normally be seen as stalking. Indeed Judge Harvey found it wide enough to cover behaviour such as cyber-bullying that is unlikely to have been foreseen by the drafters of the Act in 1997.

In the circumstances, it seems unlikely that a reader of the headline in question would be led to believe that Ms Sperling had been stalking Ms Flannagan, and in any event, the content of the article makes it quite clear that the harassment was online.

3. Attempts to contact Ms Sperling

There is some dispute whether the reporter called Ms Sperling’s home phone in an attempt to contact her, but this is largely irrelevant as he did contact her by Twitter shortly afterwards. The question is whether he should have made a further attempt to contact her by email as she had requested.

It is difficult to understand why the reporter did not email Ms Sperling. Having already searched out her Twitter contact details, it would have taken very little more effort to find her email address. It is noted that she did not respond to the reporter’s request for her email address, but it is also noted that she was in hospital and there could have been any number of legitimate reasons why she did not respond.

There is, however, nothing to suggest that the failure to contact Ms Sperling led to an unfair, unbalanced or significantly inaccurate article.

4. Malice and conflict of interest

There is no evidence to support Ms Sperling’s allegation that the Sunday Star-Times article was motivated by malice or that it was influenced by Mr Laws. It is clear from the timing of the article that it was prompted by the publication of Judge Harvey’s decision, which was a matter of obvious public interest. It is also clear that the relationship between the Sunday Star-Times and Mr Laws is not one where Mr Laws has any influence over the content of anything other than his own column.

Conclusion

The Press Council does not uphold Ms Sperling’s complaint.

There was some inaccuracy in the Sunday Star-Times article, but it was comparatively minor in the context both of the article and of other aspects of Ms Sperling’s complaint. It is insufficient to warrant upholding the complaint.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.