RODERICK WELLWOOD AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 2409

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Comment and Fact
Court Reporting
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has not upheld, by a 6:4 majority, a complaint against Hawke's Bay Today by Rod Wellwood.

Background
The complaint concerned a report published on September 17, 2014 following court proceedings concerning Mr Wellwood's son, Michael Justin Wellwood. The former Hawke's Bay orchardist had pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of rape and indecent assault, while remaining in Australia on bail.

The son, who now lives in Queensland, was excused from attending the court. The charges relate to alleged offences in Hastings, Havelock North, Anaura Bay and Puketapu between January 2008 and December 2014.

The newspaper report said the son's name suppression had lapsed and there was no new application for name suppression by his counsel. The case would next be heard in Napier District Court on November 27.

The report then went beyond covering the court proceedings and said he was the son of former Puketapu orchardist Rod Wellwood (the complainant). They had helped run the business together and had made headlines in 2011 and 2012 after a "stoush" with the Bank of New Zealand relating to the sale of their home and orchard to clear the mortgage.

The BNZ sold the kiwifruit orchard, but because kiwifruit prices had dipped and the orchard's value had plummeted the sale was not enough to clear the mortgage. The Puketapu lifestyle property, which had been offered as security, was eventually placed on the market by the family.

The Complaint
Rod Wellwood said the report contained historical references to himself which grossly invaded his privacy, were vindictive and unethical. He also said his son had pleaded not guilty and had to be seen as innocent of the charges until proven otherwise.

He and the editor of Hawke's Bay Today discussed the issues after the Press Council received his complaint. The editor then said he believed the issue had been resolved, and that any subsequent reports were unlikely to mention Mr Rod Wellwood.

However, Mr Wellwood then told the Press Council he remained unsatisfied. The extra material published had nothing to do with the court proceedings and had raked over historic parts of his life. It was unethical.

The report had breached Press Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; privacy; comment and fact; and subterfuge.

The "vindictive" reporting showed knowledge of the case beyond that of unbiased reporting. The reporter appeared to have a personal agenda. Mr Wellwood said he had nothing to do with the court charges and should not have been linked to the report. He also disputed the reported facts about his association with his son, and the facts as reported about his dealings with the bank and the sale of his home.

His privacy had been grossly breached as his affairs had very little to do with the reported court process.

He did not accept the editor's attempts to justify why his privacy had been breached. They were not valid or relevant to the public interest, as claimed. "Common decency as part of everyday life should also apply to ethical journalism."

The inclusion of his details in the report were "comment" and not relevant to the charges his son was facing.

Citing the Press Council's subterfuge principle, he failed to see the "overriding public interest" in rehashed details of a past episode of this life. Reporters and editors should be aware of the hurtful effect they could have on the people about whom they wrote, and their extended families.

Newspaper's Response
Editor Andrew Austin said the court report was accurate, fair and balanced. "Having spoken to Mr Wellwood, we do not understand him to allege that any aspect of the court report was in any way inaccurate."
The report's opening line noted that the accused had pleaded not guilty to the charges. The second sentence repeated that he had denied the allegations. "The report is in all respects a fair and balanced report of an on-going criminal court proceeding affecting a prior inhabitant of the region, which is entirely standard and in accordance with court reporting standards.”
The newspaper did not believe the report was in breach of the Accuracy principle.
In terms of the Privacy principle, it was appropriate and necessary to include Mr Wellwood’s name in the report concerning the allegations against his son as the Wellwood name was known in parts of Hawke’s Bay and readers would have recognised it in the court report.
Michael Wellwood was also involved in the running of the family business in the Hawke’s Bay area with his father and the last time Michael Wellwood was mentioned in Hawke's Bay Today was in respect of his involvement in the family dispute with the BNZ bank. Michael and Rod Wellwood were parties to the dispute with the BNZ bank relating to the sale of their home and orchard to clear the mortgage.
"As Mr Rod Wellwood was also involved in the family dispute with the bank, his name was mentioned as well.
If the link between Michael and Rod Wellwood were omitted, we believe we could have been accused of trying to cover up the familial relationship.
"We believe that the criminal court report clearly conveys that Michael Wellwood has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces. Given that Michael is currently deemed innocent and taking account of the factors above, we consider that the inclusion of his father’s name in respect of the earlier matter concerning them both is warranted in the circumstances. We do not believe the report breaches this principle."
On the Comment principle, the editor said the report did not contain any comment. It was a factual report of the on-going criminal court proceeding against Mr Wellwood’s son and recounted the facts surrounding the prior dispute between the Wellwood family and the BNZ bank. "We do not consider the report to breach this principle."

Rejecting the claim about Subterfuge, he said none of the information in the report was obtained by subterfuge or other dishonest means. The court proceedings were open to the public and no longer subject to any suppression orders. Details of the dispute between the Wellwood family and the BNZ bank were published in an article which appeared in November 2011.
There was never any intention to cause Mr Wellwood any embarrassment. After speaking to him, the editor said he was prepared to assure him that his name would not be printed in any future stories relating to the on-going criminal proceeding against his son.
"This newspaper takes a very cautious approach to identifying people in circumstances like this and we are respectful of privacy rights. In this case we believe publication of Mr Wellwood's name was justified and within the parameters of the Press Council principles."

Press Council Decision
This issue arose from reporting of the Hastings District Court's decision to remove the name suppression of Mr Wellwood's son, Michael, who was facing a number of sex charges, and the newspaper report's inclusion of previously publicised material about Mr Rod Wellwood and his son. This publicity, in 2011 and 2012, was unrelated to the charges.

Mr Wellwood disputed some of the reported facts about the previous controversy. He also said his son had pleaded not guilty and had to be seen as innocent of the charges until proven otherwise. However, these issues are not the nub of the complaint.

Principle: Accuracy, fairness and balance: Mr Wellwood was upset that the newspaper used the lifting of his son's name suppression to revisit the previous unrelated controversy. However, their identities were well known in the district because of the previous publicity. Anyone with local knowledge who read the court report including Michael Wellwood's name could have made the connection. The newspaper merely reported what was publicly known.

Although Mr Wellwood questioned some aspects of reporting of historic facts, he did not challenge the newspaper to correct these details.

The report did not need more "balance" (presumably comment from Mr Rod Wellwood).The editor contends that the court report was accurate, fair and balanced and the Press Council supports this.
Principle: Privacy: The Press Council's principle of privacy states in part: "Publications should exercise care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not directly relevant to the matter reported." However, in this case the name Wellwood was well known in the district, and the newspaper was merely reporting what had been publicised before. As name suppression for the accused had lapsed and the Wellwood name was "known", the newspaper felt it was it was relevant to refer to the previous controversy. The majority of the Press Council agrees
The Press Council's privacy principle also states, "the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest."

Principle: Comment and fact: There was no comment, it was a report of the court proceedings and reuse of previous publicity. The editor has also denied any personal "vendetta" or bias by the reporter.

Principle: Subterfuge: The Press Council cannot see any evidence of subterfuge by the newspaper since it merely reported what was publicly available.

The complaint is not upheld by a majority.

Dissenting Opinion
While members of the Press Council were unanimous in the opinion expressed on most aspects of Mr Wellwood’s complaint, four members were of the view that there had been a breach of Principle 2 of the Press Council Principles and to that extent the complaint should be upheld.

Principle 2 relates to privacy and states (in part) that publications should exercise particular care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not relevant to the matter reported.

While it is no doubt accurate to say that Mr Wellwood and his son had been in dispute with the BNZ, that dispute had no connection with or relevance to the charges against Michael Wellwood. The dispute had occurred some years previously and the subject-matter was completely different. There is no suggestion that Mr Wellwood was involved in the events that led to the charges or that his part in the earlier dispute was relevant to the alleged offending.

While it is accepted that the reporter was not acting vindictively and had no personal interest in targeting Mr Wellwood, the mention of Mr Wellwood’s name and his part in the earlier dispute was unnecessary, irrelevant, and no doubt caused him distress by giving further publicity to matters he thought he had put behind him.

It is acknowledged that the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today sought to remedy matters by agreeing to keep Mr Wellwood’s name out of further reports on the prosecution, but it should never have appeared in that context in the first place.

The majority of the Press Council members who did not uphold the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

The Press Council members who dissented in part were Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow and Peter Fa’afiu,
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.