BLAIR MCCOLLUM AGAINST THE TE AWAMUTU COURIER

Case Number: 582

Council Meeting: JULY 1995

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NULL

The New Zealand Press Council has rejected a complaint against the Te Awamutu Courier by a lawyer acting for Blair McCollum and his family. The complaint concerned a court report published on 23 February 1995 which described the sentencing of Blair McCollum to three and a half years' imprisonment for charges of indecent assault and unlawful sexual connection against two young girls. The report was a thorough one of some length including the information that the defendant often babysat the girls, that the two families were close friends and that the abuse had persisted over four years. Specific details of the sexual abuse were also given. Arguments by both the defence and the prosecution were included as well as the judge's conclusions.

The lawyer for the McCollums complained to the newspaper on 15 March that the publication of the details of the abuse was unfair and seemed designed to punish and embarrass the family and to titillate readers. He also objected to the information about the relations between the families and the age of the girls on the grounds that this might identify the victims and cause them and the McCollums further pain and embarrassment. He compared the Courier report unfavourably with the briefer account in the Waikato Times.

The editor of the newspaper defended the report on 17 March by analogy with other earlier stories on similar subjects. He claimed the charge of unlawful sexual connection was an unfamiliar one and that the details were necessary to distinguish it from rape; that a spokesperson from the local Healing and Rape Crisis Centre thought the publication of the offences would provide an effective deterrent to others and would alert other victims. He also pointed out that the judge had not prohibited the publication of evidence and argued that the other information objected to by the lawyer was significantly relevant to the case. He believed the report was socially responsible and offered to meet Mrs McCollum.

The lawyer did not accept these arguments and repeated his charges of unfair reporting to the Press Council on 5 May. He did not agree the publication of the details of the offences was necessary to explain the precise charges, to deter others or to alert victims when it caused further pain to the offender and his family. He thought seeking advice from the Rape Crisis Centre spokesperson without seeking an opposing viewpoint was unfair.

The editor noted in reply to the Press Council that the conversation with the Rape Crisis Centre spokesperson had followed the appearance of the article and was part of an ongoing policy of monitoring the reporting of such cases. He also claimed the victims' family had no objections to the report. He denied that it represented a "witch hunt" as the lawyer had claimed.

The Council thought that the report was a thorough and careful account of the court proceedings and that its length was justified by its local interest. Council members also considered that the specific details of the sexual abuse, and other information mentioned by the lawyer, were pertinent to the case and that their publication, however painful to the defendant and his family, did not infringe against standards of good journalistic practice. They particularly noted that the judge had taken no steps to suppress this information. The complaint was therefore not upheld.