SUSAN BUTTERWORTH AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 1061

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Right of Reply
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Susan Butterworth about the NZ Listener’s refusal to publish, in its print edition, her rebuttal to an opinion piece on the Crewe murders.

BACKGROUND
On March 18, the Listener published a letter from Ms Butterworth referring to a Sunday programme piece about the 1970 murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. In her letter, Ms Butterworth, author of the 2005-published book More than Law and Order: Policing a Changing Society 1945-1992 (the fifth volume of an official police history), questioned programme assertions that a detective had planted a cartridge linked to Thomas’s rifle.

On April 1, the magazine ran a two-page feature in reply by journalist campaigner Pat Booth entitled “Dead Ends”, its standfirst reading, “Those who still accept the police case against Arthur Allan Thomas are wrong”. The article’s introduction made it quite clear that it was a response to Ms Butterworth’s letter. It read: “So the Royal Commission that found Arthur Thomas innocent of the Crewe murders was swayed by family folklore! So says police historian Susan Butterworth, in criticising (Letters, March 18) the latest television documentary on the case.”

The article was clearly labelled, “Viewpoint”.

In summary, Mr Booth’s piece recapped his much-publicised version of events including, among other things, that the police had planted evidence to implicate Mr Thomas, and that the likeliest scenario of the deaths was that of a murder-suicide. Jeanette Crewe shot her husband after a violent attack on her, rang her father Len Demler to help dispose of the body, then some days later shot herself.

Ms Butterworth requested a right of reply, submitting an article of roughly the same length as Mr Booth’s, in which she argued that a murder-suicide could not have been possible because a post-mortem report showed Jeanette Crewe to have been shot in the back of the head. She also asserted that the Royal Commission’s findings were flawed for their starting point that Mr Thomas was innocent, and that there was no evidence that a cartridge had been planted.

In response, the Listener offered to run her article on its website alongside Mr Booth’s, but not in its printed edition. It advised her that it would, instead, “consider running” a 300-word summary letter to the editor, with a pointer to the website. Both offers were rejected by Ms Butterworth, on the grounds that a website did not represent equal prominence, and that 300 words to rebut an attack on her research “devalued her work”. She said the magazine was prepared to “misuse editorial policy” to protect the reputation of a prominent journalist.

She was not interested in starting a new crusade on the matter; rather, she was motivated by “simple human indignation at the way the reputations of a number of innocent people – beginning with the poor, unfortunate victims – have been traduced for more than 35 years without their having anyone to speak for them”.

Taking her complaint to the Press Council, Ms Butterworth reiterated her argument that the Listener was failing to acknowledge the disparity in the amount of exposure it was prepared to give to different sides of the argument. Questioning the reliability of Mr Booth’s research and the Listener’s adherence to it, she concluded: “Twenty five years later it seems the only opinion to be countenanced is that of the [Auckland] Star [the paper that carried Mr Booth’s original reportage], which has been long defunct … all I have asked for is fair space and prominence to present an alternative view. I cannot accept that the Listener has offered either and the repetition of its limited offer does not make it more acceptable.”


RESPONSE OF THE MAGAZINE

Listener editor Pamela Stirling said Ms Butterworth had been offered an opportunity to argue her case. The magazine rejected her assertion about being prepared to misuse editorial policy, saying, “You and Pat Booth have widely different views on the Crewe murder case. That does not make his, (or your), views any less valid. Booth spent seven years investigating the case. Arthur Allan Thomas was pardoned by a Royal Commission, which heavily criticised the police and Booth was awarded an OBE, largely for his work on freeing Thomas, wrongly jailed for murder. After seven years’ investigation Booth is entitled to have developed his own theory on what may have occurred, despite your disagreeing with it.”

Ms Butterworth’s case had been well covered in her original letter, which had been published in its entirety. The Listener had “every right” to publish what she had called “one-side” of the case.

“The facts speak for themselves. Thomas was pardoned. Booth worked tirelessly as a journalist to establish his innocence. That you disagree was evident in your published letter, but does not alter the course of events.”

Ms Stirling also questioned a Ms Butterworth assertion that older people did not look at websites, saying “the older generation” was one of the fastest growing groups using the Internet. Another letter, written by the editorial business manager for Listener publisher New Zealand Magazines, Suzanne Chetwin, said the Listener did not espouse Mr Booth’s opinions and interests as alleged. “But it does believe that Mr Booth, as one of the country’s most senior and respected journalists and who spent seven years investigating the Crewe murder case, has standing to write on the subject and to hold a view.”

CONCLUSION

It is not for the Press Council to determine whether police planted evidence in this case, nor to make comment or attempt a conclusion on who committed the murders, or even on the efficacy of the Royal Commission. Nor is it for the Council to rule on news judgment. The detail of this most famous of New Zealand cases has been debated for decades and no doubt will continue to be so.

Mr Booth’s article very directly questions Ms Butterworth’s work. But on the question of fairness and balance, it is significant that Ms Butterworth was offered space to put her side, albeit in the magazine’s Internet edition, together with a 300-word summary and a pointer to the website in the magazine.

The Listener’s choice to merely reiterate Mr Booth’s much-reported views, then halting the debate in its print version, is its prerogative. The magazine has breached no principles in running an opinion piece in response to a published letter about the case. The article, clearly tagged as opinion, is entitled to carry strongly held views and Mr Booth has the credentials to put a widely held view of the case from his perspective. The complaint is therefore not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.