SONJA LAWSON AGAINST TARANAKI DAILY NEWS

Case Number: 2307

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Taranaki Daily News

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Privacy
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Names Suppression Of
Accuracy
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Sonja Lawson against Taranaki Daily News.

Background
Taranaki Daily News reported on October 9, 2012 on the Court of Appeal's upholding of a conviction for fraud imposed on Sonja Lawson by the New Plymouth District Court. In the course of the article, which was headed "Woman did not declare bonds", note was made of Miss Lawson's failure to declare bonus bonds of up to $20,000 when she applied for additional benefits and a benefit review from Work and Income. She subsequently received more than $18,000 from this review and special benefits. In her appeal, Miss Lawson claimed that she had revealed the bonus bonds but this was rejected by both the District Court and Appeal Court judges.

In addition an 'in brief' column on the October 26 stated that Miss Lawson had been found guilty of sending offensive language or suggestions in faxes to a range of organisations.

The Complaint
Miss Lawson phoned a complaint to the editor of Taranaki Daily News, followed up by a letter, alleging factually incorrect and misleading information relating to the 'abusive faxes' column comment. She followed this up over a month later with a further letter complaining about both articles.

She complained that no response had been received to her multiple calls, faxes and now letters to her claims that the articles are inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced; that her privacy had been breached as she had name suppression; that the headlines were inaccurate and misleading; that the paper had used subterfuge and had refused to correct errors. She demanded retraction and apologies in a prominent place in the paper.

Dissatisfied with the paper's verbal replies to her complaint and refusal to retract and apologise, Miss Lawson laid the same complaints before the Press Council.

The Newspaper's Response
The editor of Taranaki Daily News responded to the Council that the published articles had been taken from a Court of Appeal decision and a hearing in the Hawera District Court, and he was unaware of any inaccuracy. Furthermore no suppression order was in place regarding Miss Lawson.

He appended a copy of the Court of Appeal judgement, which the paper's article had briefly summarised, and which dismissed Miss Lawson's appeal against conviction. In this, the judge stated that Miss Lawson’s “assertion was inconsistent with the WINZ evidence” and with the special benefit application form Miss Lawson completed.

Miss Lawson sent a further substantial response to the Press Council on receipt of the editor's response. She disputed the paper's position, claiming that her convictions and sentence were 'squashed' in the High Court before Christmas; that she wanted the name of the reporter who wrote the article; and that she had never been charged with or convicted of sending abusive faxes.

Discussion
Miss Lawson obviously feels aggrieved that the paper reported on her failed approach to the Court of Appeal to have her conviction for fraud overturned. She is equally angry about the 'in brief' column that stated she had been convicted of sending abusive faxes, a point that she denies.

This latter is a matter of semantics. Unsurprisingly the newspaper did not use the exact words of the charge sheet. But the Council finds the brief did not mislead readers.

The Council is satisfied that both newspaper reports are fair and reasonable accounts of two court cases; one report was based on a Court judgment and one on the Statement of Facts presented in Court.
Miss Lawson does not have name suppression (the Court of Appeal judgment is available online) and the newspaper had a right to report each case.
Media have a right to attend and report Court proceedings. They do so on behalf of the public and in the interests of open justice.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.