WOMENS HEALTH ACTION AGANST WAIKATO TIMES
Case Number: 2466
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2015
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Waikato Times
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Women’s Health Action complained about an article published as front-page lead in theWaikato Times on July 22, 2015 headlined “Mum says rape charges (words in smaller blue font)BULLS*** AND JELLYBEANS(words in larger black font)”. The article was also posted on Stuff under the headline “Top Waikato cricket player ‘set up’ on rape charges – mum”. The article arises from proceedings in the Hamilton District Court, where charges of indecent assault and sexual violation by rape in respect of two victims were laid by the Police against Scott Kuggeleijn, a Northern Districts cricketer.
The article, and in particular the headline, gave prominence to the views of the cricketer’s family, who assert his innocence of the charges and their belief that he has been “set up”. The report covers various other matters dealt with in court such as bail conditions; and the cricketer’s sporting history.
The complaint is, on balance, not upheld.
The complainant cites a number of specific principles and general grounds including: breach of Press Council Principle 1 Accuracy, fairness and balance; breach of Principle 8 care to ensure that sources are well informed and reliable; breaches of general standards and expectations on the media to maintain “high standards …and public faith”; and alleges that the report “amounts to litigating this case in the media before the facts are known”.
The complainant believes the report “does not simply report the news, in this case a young sportsman accused of rape and sexual assault, but promotes a certain view of the accusation and deals with the story in a way that is damaging both to the alleged victims and other victims of violence”.
The complainant says the decision of the Waikato Times, to headline the story with the opinion of the mother of the defendant that her son is innocent, was not fair, accurate or balanced and appears to blame the victims. In response to the editor’s comments, the complainant noted that the identity and details of victims are rightly unavailable; and that on the first appearance of a defendant to answer charges there is no opportunity to report the victims’ side of the story.
The editor says the job of the newspaper is to tell stories and provide context. This story “reports fairly and accurately court proceedings in which Mr Kuggeleijn was the sole protagonist”. The report was of great interest to the public. The mother’s view adds to the story.
The editor notes victims of sexual offences are automatically granted permanent name suppression and there is no opportunity to report the other side at this stage of proceedings. The victims’ side of the story, as well as that of the defendant, will be reported and balance achieved when the case is heard in full.
Discussion and Decision
Given that the story was a report of charges being laid against a named defendant, with names and identities of victims suppressed, it was of its nature one sided. As the editor points out it is hard to give coverage to victims at this stage of proceedings.
Some coverage was given to the cricketer’s sporting successes; but it must be noted that the prominence given to the story by theWaikato Times and Stuff, along with the publication of a large, clearly recognisable photograph of the defendant (several more photographs of him were on Stuff) gave wide public circulation to the charges and to the identity of the defendant.
The young defendant now has these charges permanently on readily accessible public record through the medium of the internet, whatever the outcome of the court case.
The subsequent reporting of the court case and of both sides of the story should provide the opportunity over time to ensure that the paper fulfils its responsibilities to be fair, accurate and balanced.
The requirement for sources to be reliable is not relevant in this case. The identity of the mother and her unsurprisingly strong views about her son’s innocence were clear and reported as her opinion, and readers are able to reach their own conclusions.
The complainant also raises more general points about standards, public faith in the media and the tendency of the story to reflect badly on victims of violence.
In the Council’s view these general points cannot be sustained as grounds for upholding this particular complaint. The report was largely about charges laid against a locally well-known defendant, statements made in court on his behalf by his lawyer, his family’s reaction to the situation and some context. The story was of public interest.
The Council has generally regarded court reporting as a special category requiring high ethical standards, in the interests of justice to the individuals involved and the court system itself. In support of open justice, reporters are given special rights and privileges. The editor describes it as “a court story”.
In this case the report was presented in the Waikato Times as a front-page lead, with a large photograph of the defendant and a tabloid style headline “Bulls*** and jellybeans”.The source of this quote was the defendant’s mother. The headline was a conscious editorial decision to give colourful, tabloid treatment to a report of court proceedings which could have been presented and headlined more factually. (e.g.: “Local sports star charged with rape”.)
The Council’s principle requires that a headline “should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element” of the story. The fact that a mother believes her son to be innocent of a charge is hardly a surprise, and does not convey the substance of the story.
However, it is relevant to the Council’s consideration of the headline that theWaikato Times story of July 22 was essentially a follow up to reports of the charges already covered by TV1 News and other national and international media on July 21. The mother’s comment was therefore a new angle on the story. The Council gave careful consideration to the points made by Women’s Health Action, but on balance has concluded the complaints cannot be upheld as breaches of the Council’s principles.
Complaints about the story and the headline are therefore, on balance, not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Hank Scoutens, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.