SIMON COFFEY AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 2482

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions

Overview

Simon Coffey has complained about an article published on Stuff on January 14, 2016 and inThe Southland Times on January 15, 2016.

The article is headed “Invercargill teacher ‘king-hit’ man” and is a court report of a guilty plea by Brandon Jordan Hiko for an assault on Stephen Jack Blair-Edie last year. The story is based on the police summary of facts, which says the attack took place on Dee St in Invercargill in the early hours of November 7. The headline and opening line describe Hiko as an “Invercargill teacher”.

The Complaint

After reading the story, Mr Coffey went to the Education Council website, where registered teachers are listed, in line with the Education Act. Hiko was not listed (and is still not). The complainant says that readers seeing someone described as a teacher would make “the automatic assumption… that the individual is a teacher at a school”.

Mr Coffey is concerned that the description of Hiko as a teacher undermines the professional integrity of the teaching profession and felt the report amounted to an “attack” on the profession.

He alerted Stuff to Hiko’s lack of registration via email. Stuff Editor Patrick Crewdson forwarded the complaint toSouthland Times News Director Blake Foden, who indicated the headline and story would not be changed.

The complainant argues that the journalist should have checked Hiko’s job status before publishing and that, once alerted to “the error in the headline”, it should have been amended. To not do so is “sensationalist” and “spurious reporting”. His complaint is based on Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 6 (headlines and captions) and 12 (corrections).

The Response

Mr Foden replied promptly to Mr Coffey, saying “The police prosecutor read a summary of facts to the court today, in which he said Brandon Jordan Hiko worked as a teacher. Our reporter has also read the summary of facts, which lists Hiko’s occupation as ‘teacher’.”

Responding to the Press Council, Southland Times Editor Natasha Holland quotes from that summary of facts, which reads “The defendant is a 22 year-old teacher who usually resides locally”. She says describing the defendant’s name, age, occupation and where they live ensures there is no confusion over the identity of the person who is the subject of the case.

She denies attacking the teaching profession. She explains that the paper relies on legal documents (e.g. charge sheets, summaries of fact and evidence in court) in its reportage. Journalists “have strong qualified privilege” to report on court, whereas they could be “exposed” by relying on a website, where the information may be out of date.

She concludes: “Our view is that we reported information that was reported in court and is now on the legal record”.

The Decision

The Press Council agrees that many, though not all, readers would assume that someone described in the media as a teacher would be employed by a school, kura, kindergarten or pre-school. Yet, the fact Hiko’s name is not listed on the Education Council’s register is not definitive proof he is not a teacher at one of those institutions. He may be an unregistered teacher in an early childcare centre. Further, some readers may reasonably believe him to be a martial arts teacher or swimming instructor, for example.

Therefore, while the lack of registration raises questions, there is no certainty that the police, court records, or indeed the article and headline, are inaccurate, and so no obligation to correct.

As Holland and Foden say, the reporter rightly relied on the police summary and testimony from court. It is reasonable for theTimes and Stuff to rely on what is revealed in court and legally required for journalists to accurately report the legal documents and evidence presented there. They can do no other. If Hiko’s occupation has been wrongly recorded that is for the police and court to correct.

Finally, it seems a stretch to suggest the actions of one young man would cause most readers to think less of an entire profession or question the integrity of the 48,000 other teachers in New Zealand.

The complaint is not upheld.

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