JULIE HALES AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2617

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Sensationalism
Unfair Coverage

Overview

This is a complaint that an article in The Press about the return of exhibits used in the David Bain trial breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance by suggesting that while he had been acquitted, Bain had killed his own family. It was also claimed that the article and photographs appeared to deliberately sensationalise and provoke. The complaint was not upheld by a majority of the Press Council 9:2.

Background

The Press ran an article on June 21, 2017 reporting that the .22 rifle used to kill the Bain family in Dunedin in 1994 and other court exhibits were to be returned to David Bain through his advocate Joe Karam, despite objections from surviving family. The rifle was an exhibit in the trial of David Bain who had initially been found guilty and ultimately acquitted in 2009 after he was retried on charges of murdering his father, mother, sisters and brother.

The article was illustrated with photographs of the rifle being held by a witness during the retrial, David Bain’s shorts and socks and a blood-soaked glove. Also included were photos of David Bain, Joe Karam and David’s father Robin.

One sentence in the article stated:

“Other items to be returned to David Bain include the bloody white gloves allegedly used by the killer, his T-shirt, socks and underpants, and items from his bedroom.”

The Complaint

Julie Hales said the article, which ought to have been a simple fair statement of facts about the return of exhibits, was sensationalised by being given prominence, large headlines, confronting colour photographs of court exhibits and 22 paragraphs of mostly biased content.

The use of a photo showing a witness holding a gun to his own head was unjustified, confronting and out of context given the trial had taken place eight years earlier, and inappropriate given the country’s high teenage suicide rate.

The article was intended to shock and provoke continued controversy in spite of the acquittal eight years earlier.

She said that the sentence - “Other items to be returned to David Bain include the bloody gloves allegedly used by the killer, his T-shirt, socks and underpants, and items from his bedroom” - can only be read as “the killer” referring to David Bain.

The paper had an agenda when it ran this story and the journalist Martin van Beynen was biased. This was evident three weeks later with the publication of a further full page story, an extensive broadcast media interview and a four hour podcast on the case in which van Beynen said he was certain Bain killed his family.

The Response

Kamala Hayman, deputy editor Canterbury Otago, said the Crown’s decision to return exhibits relevant to the Bain trail was a key development in this long running case, of significant public interest and warranted front page placement. Its position and headline were in keeping with it being judged the most significant news story of the day.

As for bias, she said the article was a largely factual account of the situation with sparing use of adjectives. Martin van Beynen was arguably New Zealand’s foremost expert on the Bain murders and had expressed his views on who the killer was. However, as a senior investigative journalist he was experienced in writing balanced factual accounts of news developments regardless of his views, which were restricted to clearly labelled opinion pieces.

The particular sentence complained of was an accurate statement. It did not say who the killer was and she rejected the suggestion it could only be read as referring to David Bain. The article clearly stated in the third paragraph that Bain had been acquitted.

While it was recognised publication of the photograph of the rifle could be confronting to some readers, its use in the context of this article was relevant and in the public interest. This rifle was a key exhibit in the trial and the photo illustrated a key moment.

The photos were not shocking or distressing in the context of a case well known to most New Zealanders and involving the violent death of five members of the Bain family.

The Decision

The Bain case has been a matter of great public interest and controversy over the many years since the murders took place. There have been two trials, the second ending in an acquittal, an ex- gratia payment to David Bain and a finding that he had not established his innocence on the balance of probabilities.

The return of the rifle and other personal items to Bain and other family members is of some moment and the Press Council is not in a position to argue that it did not warrant front page treatment. The photos were shocking but so was the case. The main photo, taken at the trial eight years earlier, was compelling. It was also confronting, as it was to Ms Hales, but it was not gratuitous or unwarranted in the context of this story.

Whether it was inappropriate, given the country’s high suicide rate, we can only make the point that all editors must weigh that matter carefully when making editorial decision like this.

A worrying aspect of this complaint is the suggestion that The Press and its journalist were biased against David Bain. This is always a danger when reporters, who are required to cover events without favour, are then allowed or encouraged to express their views, albeit in separate and clearly marked opinion pieces. However, many readers will see the same by-lines on both “news” and “opinion pieces” and be confused by the distinction. Any hint of bias can be corrosive. The blurring of lines between reportage and editorial opinion can erode trust in the media and publishers and journalists need to reflect on that.

Although The Press reported high up in the article that Bain had been acquitted, Ms Hale’s view thatThe Press was biased in its reporting of this case was, we believe, based on a misreading of the sentence she complained of.

The word “alleged” is pivotal here. The Crown alleged he was the killer. The Press was not inaccurate when it reported that the items returned to Bain included the bloody white gloves “allegedly used by the killer.”

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

Hank Schouten and Christina Tay dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint.