BRIAN HARTLEY AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 973

Council Meeting: MAY 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Taste Lack of

Christchurch man Brian Hartley has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about a comment made in a court report and published in The Press, Christchurch.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

Mr Hartley’s is essentially a third-party complaint (a complaint on behalf of another) about the final sentence of a report published in The Press on February 6 this year. The article, headed No time inside for al fresco drink, carried the subsidiary heading, Court Sentences, and appeared under the court reporter’s byline.

The article complained of highlighted a case in which a 62-year-old man had been arrested and charged with breaching Christchurch City Council’s liquor ban in Cathedral Square. The district court judge was reported as saying he had taken into account the man’s guilty pleas, his time in custody and the fact that he had not appeared before the court for about 12 years.

The Press report noted that the defendant’s previous convictions had mainly been for drink-driving.

The judge convicted and discharged the defendant on one charge but on the second, that of breaching the liquor ban, fined him $125, plus $130 in court costs.

The reporter ended his column with: “He could have bought a lot of wine for that” – the words to which Mr Hartley took strong exception.

In his complaint to the Council, Mr Hartley said that he had written twice to the editor of The Press and received no reply.

He said he believed that the final line in the court report had been highly gratuitous, had an unsavoury flavour and was totally unnecessary. Earlier, in his letters to The Press, he also said that the final sentence made light of the adverse circumstances that appeared part of the man’s life.

Responding, Press editor Paul Thompson explained to the Council that several years ago the newspaper made a deliberate decision to change its style of court reporting. Previously, reports were strictly factual, with no comment or background added by the journalist.

“Now, in at least some instances, reporters are given free rein. They can set cases in context and make pertinent comments,” Mr Thompson said. This was particularly so in the Court Sentences column, in which the words about which Mr Hartley objected, appeared.

He rejected Mr Hartley’s contention that his reporter had made a gratuitous remark. “In the context of the case, I do not think it was,” the editor told the Press Council.

The Press Council, having considered submissions from both sides, said that it accepted that The Press’s court-reporting style was not the standard recitation of facts to which some publications restricted themselves but that it could not fault the newspaper for that.

However, the Council said editors needed to remain conscious of the dangers posed by diverting from standard court-reporting techniques. In this case, the words that offended Mr Hartley could be regarded as cruel in the circumstances, albeit unintentionally.

Nonetheless, the Council found that the report in question fell well short of breaching journalistic ethics and its own Statement of Principles.

The complaint is not upheld.