Case Number: 860

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Balance, Lack Of

The New Zealand Immigration Service complained about reporting and commentary in the New Zealand Herald to do with an attempt on 8 June 2001 to remove two young Samoans from the country. The Herald’s overall coverage of the incident was described as "inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced"; the original report of 11 June was thought to be "grossly inaccurate" and an editorial of 13 June was said to have repeated "the erroneous information contained in the original story in highly emotive language and style". A further article on 27 June was cited as having "lacked balance, repeated a number of errors from the earlier coverage and misrepresented the Report" - which emerged from the Service’s own investigation into the affair. The Herald was called variously to apologise for the errors and imbalance in its reporting and for "aspersions of bias".

The Immigration Service was certainly given a “bad press” in the Herald’s 11 June report and in its editorial of 13 June. The former was carried at the top of the front page under the headline "Officials try to deport terrified girl" with a sub heading "An immigration swoop on the home of a 10-year-old girl is called “cruel” and “heartless” by her lawyer". Under his photograph the lawyer was quoted in black type, as describing the failure of immigration officials to take note of the claim that the child in question had been adopted by the householders, " the guy did not want to know. The law is the law and they were going to bowl on and do it". The report opened as follows "In a morning raid police and immigration officers took a screaming 10 year-old girl from her adoptive parents’ home to deport her to Samoa". The newspaper’s main editorial two days later carried the headline, "Immigration staff blundered, again". Both the report and editorial stated that the two young people who were to have been removed had been "held in police cells". On 14 June, the Herald greeted the Immigration Service’s announcement that it would conduct an investigation into the affair with a brief and sarcastic mention in its regular column, “What they don’t want you to know”, as follows: "The Immigration Service claims Herald reports on its attempted removal of a 21-year old Samoan woman and a 10-year old child were not in possession of all the facts. But the service had not issued all the facts because it has begun a process to establish them for itself". A further story on 27 June highlighted some of the shortcomings in the service’s procedures identified in the Investigating Officer’s report. The newspaper also corrected itself on some points of detail in its coverage of the affair in its We Got it Wrong column of 30 June.

A child aged ten and her cousin aged 21, both of whom had been living in Hamilton on expired temporary permits, were told by Immigration Service officers at 7.30 am on 8 June that they were to be returned to Samoa. The 21year old was taken to a local police station and interviewed, while the child remained at the house pending clarification of a claim that she had been adopted by the householders. In the absence of certainty on this point the child was taken, at 12.35pm, and delivered into the care of Child, Youth & Family officers in Hamilton. At about 3pm, she was brought to the police station where ­ in the public area ­ the family farewelled the two young people. Both were then removed in a police vehicle to Auckland Airport. During the course of the afternoon a lawyer acting for the family applied for an interim injunction against the removal order, which was granted later in the evening. Immigration Service officials also recognised that they had not been given all the information about a complicated family situation. In the evening the two were returned to the house in Hamilton.

The Herald report of 11 June was based on interviews with the lawyer and with an aunt of the child who, she said, had been "very frightened" when the Immigration Service officials took her. The reporter also made three attempts to contact the Immigration Service spokesman, over a weekend. In the event, the Herald claimed, the spokesman was unable to discuss the incident in detail because it is the Service’s policy not to comment on cases under current consideration.

This was clearly a news item of importance and immediate interest. There were obvious echoes of the ‘dawn raids’ on so-called ‘over-stayers’ of earlier years. In accordance with Press Council procedures the Immigration Service wrote to the Herald contesting the newspaper’s interpretation of events, specifically denying that the child had ever been put in a police cell or had been taken "screaming" from the house. The charge that a child had been put in a prison cell was serious and was never specifically retracted by the Herald, although the 27 June story ­which drew on the Investigating Officer’s report ­ said that "contrary to newspaper reports the child was never held in a police cell and was not taken from the house screaming".

The Immigration Service claimed that the Herald reporter had not checked with their spokesman about these matters. The Herald, however, made the point that the policy of not commenting on current cases made "sensible discourse" between the media and the Service about such issues, impossible. The Press Council appreciates that government departments may often find it difficult to engage in such a discourse because of their obligations under the Privacy Act and the need for sensitivity in matters with a high political resonance. Nevertheless, the Council recommends adoption of policies of maximum possible openness and availability in dealing with the media.

In a Media Statement of 13 June the Immigration Service contended that the Herald’s editorial of that date "flew in the face of principles of fairness and natural justice" on the grounds that, until the Service had made its own investigation into what happened, it was "totally unreasonable for the Herald to judge the service’s actions". The implication here is that government agencies are entitled to expect newspapers to hold back on reporting and comment until officials have made their own enquiries. This would be a serious infringement of press freedom.

The Press Council found that the Herald’s coverage of this incident, although hard-hitting, was not unfair or unbalanced, when the balance is set in terms of the wider public interest. By the Service’s own admission, errors were made which undoubtedly compounded the anguish of the individuals concerned. The article and editorial brought forward issues ­ the rights of children to protection; the need to get the facts right before invoking arbitrary powers; national immigration policies ­ which can touch on fundamental human rights. The Immigration Service has a difficult role in such areas. There can, however, be no question about the public’s right to be informed about how it handles so sensitive a matter as removal proceedings. There were “inaccuracies” in the original article of 11 June, not all of which were adequately corrected in later coverage. But this consideration did not invalidate the report. Close scrutiny of such matters is a proper role of a free press. The Herald’s coverage of this affair served the public interest - although the newspaper would have helped its own cause if it had made more use of its own commendable We Got It Wrong column.

The complaint is not upheld.

People with complaints against a newspaper should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10 879 The Terrace, Wellington. Tel 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is available on the internet at