BY HELEN VIVIAN AGAINST THE SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 627

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

A complaint to the New Zealand Press Council from Helen Vivian of the Grey Lynn Neighbourhod Law Office has been rejected. The complaint was that the Sunday Star-Times had breached a name-suppression order covering a rape victim by disclosing medical evidence and details of her home. For obvious reasons, the family on whose behalf Helen Vivian wrote to the Council, cannot be named.

However, in considering the case at its September meeting, the Council expressed its surprise that such a complaint should be forwarded to it, rather than the courts which were the usual form for complaints about a breach of statute.

Rejecting the complaint, the Council said the Star-Times had, in its view, taken reasonable care to balance the suppression of the victim’s identity with legitimate campaigning in journalism on behalf of a man accused of rape and whose convictions had since been quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Ms Vivian wrote to the newspaper in early August saying three reports it had carried in March, April and May - had disclosed personal medical evidence relating to the complainant’s daughter; had identified the area where the family lived and given specific details of the family home.

The child involved is the victim in the so-called Dougherty case, about which the Star- Times has written several articles this year. In June, the Governor General referred Dougherty’s convictions back to the Court of Appeal which has ordered a retrial.

Ms Vivian said the girl’s family had been under immense strain from the court proceedings and publication of the articles referred to. The editor of the newspaper Michael Forbes told the complainant the paper was aware of the suppression order. Unhappy at that, the complainant then approached the Press Council.

Mr Forbes, in his written response to the Council, elaborated on his original one-line letter to the Law Office. He said the newspaper believed an injustice may have occurred. It had, therefore, reported Dougherty’s case in detail. In the more than a dozen articles involved, the Star-Times had taken care to protect the child’s identity. Also it had not repeated details of the home or its environs which seemed to have sparked the initial complaint.

The Star-Times had taken care not to add to the family’s distress and had voluntarily not reported some comments from the Court of Appeal, he said. The kind of home the family lived in - partially reported - was not unusual in West Auckland. Medical evidence had not been suppressed and some detail of it had been reported because it was pertinent to Dougherty’s defence.

The child’s mother had contributed to one Star-Times article and had telephoned later to say she was pleased with it. Mr Forbes said she had also had contact with the Auckland suburban newspaper which first reported the court case in 1992 without naming Dougherty, seeking to have him identified.

As is Council procedure, the editor’s response was referred back to the complainant. Ms Vivian said the child’s mother was still concerned medical information had been disclosed, but accepted it hadn’t been suppressed by the court. She also repeated the mother’s belief that reported details of the family home could enable the public to link the case with her family.

The Press Council accepts the Star-Times had taken care not to identify the child at the centre of the case. If initial references to the kind of home the family lived in, and the vicinity in which it is located, could have had such an impact - and members did not agree they had - those details were given only once. Members also said the family’s distress at the revival of the court proceedings was understandable. However it found no grounds to uphold the complaint.