Case Number: 808

Council Meeting: December 2000

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The Press Council has upheld a complaint against the New Zealand Herald brought by three Wellington women, members of the Romanian Orthodox Church community in New Zealand, who were represented by Mr Gerald O'Brien.

The Weekend Herald published two articles, on 15-16 January 2000, centred on an accusation made during a court case in Wellington, that the founding priest of St Mary's Orthodox Church in New Zealand, Father Gheorghe Speranta and his wife Elena, had worked for Securitate, the secret police of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. The accused in this case was fined $100 for making threatening phone calls to the Speranta home in Wellington. As proof of his accusation he cited newspaper articles, published between 1990 and 1996, which listed "Securitate spies of the West, both in embassies and in churches who are still carrying out missions in the National Salvation Front Government".Father Speranta, who died two years ago, appears on this list.

The accusation was extensively refuted by Mr O'Brien on behalf of the three complainants. It was emphasized that the complainants were acting in their private capacity, concerned only "to protect the memory of a good man and his widow, after having been appalled by the nature and tone of the attack"

It was maintained that the articles in question offended against Press Council standards with regard to accuracy, privacy, comment and fact, discrimination, subterfuge, headlines and captions, and photographs.

Consideration of the complaint was held up for a number of months because the Herald had been advised that Mrs Speranta was taking a case for defamation against the newspaper. The Press Council and the Herald were advised in May that she had decided against this course. After further exchanges of correspondence the Herald responded to the complaint in late September. Mr O' Brien replied in early October and the editor filed his final comments in late October.

Mr O'Brien forwarded various papers, including what is apparently a transcript of an article from the Romanian Standard with a translation, plus an extract from the Orthodox Church Calendar of 1984. The list of supposed spies has exactly the same names as the official list of representatives of the Church abroad, including Father Speranta. Mrs Speranta was not cited. Mr O'Brien also forwarded a copy of a letter (not apparently, on Embassy notepaper) over the name of the Third Secretary at the Romanian Embassy in Canberra, who is accredited to New Zealand. The letter, addressed to Gavin Ellis, the editor of the Herald on 20 January, states that this official found on reading the Herald article of 15 January that the content of his telephone conversation with the reporter, Alison Horwood, had been altered; he had stressed that the Embassy could neither confirm nor deny the allegations since they were not "detaining any information on that particular subject". Mr Ellis had no recollection of ever receiving such a letter.

The Press Council is unable to judge the merits of various allegations made by the complainants about the behaviour of the Herald reporter, in pursuing this story. The editor strongly supported her. Nor can the Press Council take any position with regard to the actual accusations made against the Sperantas. The Council, moreover, accepts the principal contention made by the editor of the Herald : that the allegations had been made in a court case, and were accordingly a legitimate topic for the newspaper to pursue. Mrs Speranta's side of the story is accorded due prominence, given that she was obviously reluctant to respond to the reporter's enquiries.

The Council found, however, that the two articles levelled very serious charges on the basis of what appeared to be the flimsiest of evidence. The page 1 headline in the Weekend Herald beneath a photograph of Mrs Speranta, states baldly "Charity worker listed as secret police agent". The article begins: "A Wellington charity worker has been named as a spy." There was no direct quote to back up this allegation from any of what the Weekend Herald described as "several major newspapers in Romania and Germany" which were said to have published the list of 26 people who had spied for Securitate. The second article has a photograph of the person making the accusations against the Sperantas, holding the same clipping from the same newspaper (Romanian Standard) as that copied to the Council by Mr O'Brien. But this clipping again has nothing to justify (in relation to the Sperantas) the unequivocal accusation in the headline: "Confessional used to extract secrets" . It simply prints - as an add-on to a piece focussed on the activities of a Romanian priest in Germany - the same official list of 26 priests of the church abroad, including Father Speranta, who are all swept up in a blanket accusation of having been spies. This second article opens with an unsubstantiated insinuation, "The Embassy of Romania confirmed last night that it was possible for a Romanian couple who settled in Wellington in 1974 to have acted as spies for the former Communist Government". The Embassy's account, noted above, was that they held no information and could neither confirm nor deny such charges. In the background to this complaint lie deep-seated issues to do with the complex and tragic history of Romania during and since the Second World War. The politics of émigré communities, are notoriously vehement and opaque to outsiders. When the underlying issues are so far removed from New Zealand experience and the allegations being made are so grave, it is necessary for editors to take particular care not to infringe against necessary standards of balance and fairness. The Press Council finds that this did not happen in this case.

The complaints were upheld.