COMPLAINT AGANST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES, MANAWATU STANDARD AND STUFF

Case Number: 2731

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2018

Verdict: Split Decision

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Court Reporting
Detail Needlessly Prejudicial
Names Suppression Of
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The Media Council received a complaint that the Sunday-Star Times, Manawatu Standard andStuff breached Principles 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance, and 2, Privacy, with the publication of a story which concerned a friendship that had soured and ended with both parties seeking restraining orders.

2. The Media Council was equally divided in its view of the complaint, with five members voting to uphold the complaint and five voting not to uphold. The two decisions reflecting both views follow at [25] and [32].

Background

3. The story covered the falling out of two friends and subsequent court hearings after the complainant sought a restraining order against the man, who in turn sought a restraining order against her.

4. There had been accusations of verbal abuse, stonewalling and “gaslighting” before the pair eventually agreed to take a break from their shared activity for a yea

5. A year later, the complainant decided to end their relationship completely. The man continued to harass the complainant, who then applied for, and was granted, a restraining order for three years.

6. The man retaliated by seeking a restraining order against her, which was struck out.He appealed this decision at a hearing that included his being held for 40 minutes in the court cells for contempt of court after a verbal exchange with the Judge. The Judge said the man was “obsessed” with the complainant’s conduct. This appeal was also struck out. It was this hearing that was the basis of the published report.

The Complaint

7. The complainant believed the article had trivialised a case of significant and protracted harassment. The reporter had not attempted to contact her for comment or to consider an appropriate way in which to “frame” a highly sensitive story. The article compounded the emotional harm that the restraining order was supposed to prevent and provided a platform for the man to continue to harass her in a public manner.

8. She said the story was not in the public interest as it affected no one other than her, and did not provide any lessons.

9. She found it “baffling” in the context of the #metoo movement that little consideration was given to the impact the story would have on her, and her privacy.

10. A friend had initially contacted Stuff in an effort to have the story taken down, but that request was refused.

11. The complainant believed the article was unbalanced as it failed to give her a “voice”; that it was missing contextual information about the man’s harassment of her; and does not record how the Judges assessed him and sought to protect her.

12. There was a substantive amount of additional information available to the reporter including that the man’s application for a restraining order against her had been dismissed by the judge, who said it was an abuse of the procedure of the court.

13. The judges had been satisfied that “a reasonable person” may have been disappointed with the complainant’s behaviour in ending the friendship but would have accepted the decision as being consistent with events which sometimes happen in relationships between adults.

14. The complainant also alleged a breach Principle 2, Privacy. She said she was not aware that judicial decisions were made public; had she been, she would have sought name suppression. She says the court is now considering an application for suppression.

The Response

15. Sunday Star-Times editor Jonathan Milne responded to the complaint on behalf of theManawatu Standard and Stuff.

16. He noted that the complaint was incorrectly premised on the fact that there had been no attempt by the reporter to contact the complainant for comment. The reporter had in fact messaged the complainant on a Facebook account he believed to be hers and sought unsuccessfully to find other contact details through a service which collates White Pages, electoral roles, court judgments, companies office listings, social media profiles and more.

17. He did not attempt to contact her through her lawyer who was named on the court documents, which the editor accepted in hindsight might have been another potential avenue.

18. Mr Milne argues that the article was a simple, fair and balanced report of court proceedings, in which both parties were represented, and there was no need to include additional comment from either party. The reporter’s attempt to do so went beyond the basic requirements of a court report, and to that extent represents his professionalism.

19. The harassment as detailed by the complainant in correspondence with the Media Council was not documented in any of the four court documents, so that information was not available to the reporter. The only harassment identified in the judgments was “a large number of postcards” sent to her workplace which contained statements from the man that she had verbally abused him, lied to him and reneged on their agreement.

20. There was nothing in the court documents to flag to the public that the harassment extended beyond the postcards.

21. The editor suggested that the fact that two High Court Justices involved did not detail the harassment “shows they did not consider these details to be material in the matter at hand, namely the competing applications for restraining orders.

22. “If the judges, who were privy to the details of the harassment, did not consider it to be relevant to their judgment, and nor did they consider it grounds to suppress [the woman’s] identity, then it would be entirely unreasonable to demand the media to instead intervene and unilaterally suppress [her] identity – operating without being privy to the information supplied to the courts,” said Mr Milne.

23. He said the article was entirely reliant on the published High Court judgments and is a fair and accurate report of them.

24. He regretted that the article had upset the complainant but said the reporter could not possibly have known that the grounds for the restraining order went beyond the matters disclosed in the High Court judgments. The Courts had published a series of judgments about the dispute, and the names of the two parties, and the media involved had complied with the obligation to ensure the article was a fair and accurate report of the court proceedings.

The Decision

DECISION - NOT UPHOLD

Decision of Sir John Hansen, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell and Tracy Watkins.

25. The Media Council is a staunch defender of the freedom of the press, which is inextricably bound with the most important principle of democracy, freedom of expression. It therefore upholds the right of the media to report on Court matters, which are a matter of public record.

26. There are however ethical considerations in this case, where an article about harassment, which resulted in a restraining order, effectively re-victimised the very person the order was supposed to protect.

27. For this reason, despite there being no order for name suppression by the Judge, the Media Council has taken the unusual step of not naming the victim or detailing any of the facts in this decision.

28. Much of the complainant’s criticism of the article was based on the fact that it did not give her a “voice” and the way it was written trivialised a serious case of harassment. Although contacting the parties named is not mandatory in court reporting, the Council believes that in this case it would have been advisable; the reporter would have been alerted to the fact that this was more than a “quirky human-interest story” about two friends whose bitter dispute led to the woman being granted a restraining order for three years.

29. We are told the reporter went to some effort to contact the woman when he couldn’t find her through the usual channels, but we remain sceptical of attempts to contact people through Facebook messaging apps. It would have been easy enough to make a call to her lawyer, who was named on the court documents.

30. While it is not the job of the Media Council to mandate on editorial content, we would recommend editors err on the side of caution when a person’s safety and wellbeing could be compromised by publication. The very mention of harassment and restraining orders should be a red flag. We note that Mr Milne acknowledged, in a final comment to the Council, that this complaint meant “we might now take additional pause for thought whenever there is a restraining order mentioned and consider whether there might be more to the case than is documented in the judgment”.

31. The ethical debate notwithstanding, we do not find that article breached any Media Council principles. The article was a report of a published Court judgement; the judgment didn’t suppress the woman’s name, nor detail the seriousness of the harassment; and the reporter was not obliged to seek comment from either of the parties mentioned as this was a report of a court judgment.

DECISION – UPHOLD

Decision of Liz Brown, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Jo Cribb and Peter Fa’afiu.

32. In deciding to uphold this complaint members of the Council acknowledge the right of the media to report on Court matters, which are a matter of public record. However, what concerns the Council members is the unintended consequence that has occurred: the re-victimisation of the complainant in this matter for various reasons but mostly as the complainant was not offered an opportunity to have her version of events known and understood prior to the decision to publish the article.The complainant was not aware of the court hearing as the Court had ordered that she should not be served with the papers in order to protect her from further harassment. This is noted in the judgment. Unfortunately, the complainant learned about the newspaper article from a friend which meant that she was unprepared and this added to her sense of distress.

33. In his reply, Mr Milne has indicated that the parties were represented in the court hearings however the court documents do not reflect this as being an accurate statement.As shown on the judgment the individual who was the subject of the restraining order appears to have represented himself in the court hearings.The complainant was not present or represented, and as we now know, she did not even know about the hearing in question. This meant she was unable to apply for a suppression order.

34. It is disappointing that more effort was not made to contact the complainant in this matter.The explanation offered that “The reporter messaged [her] on a Facebook account he believed to be hers” is not sufficient.The reporter had the option of contacting her lawyer, whose name was easily accessible on the court documents.

35. Mr Milne says there is no detail in the judgment that would flag the level of harassment. However the Council notes that the judgment stated that the effect of the application was to operate as a “means of oppressive conduct and further harassment.” The Court noted this was an abuse of process. It follows therefore that publication of a report of the hearing could be seen in the same light and, at the very least, there should have been a more extensive effort to contact the complainant to ensure that the full facts were known before any consideration was given to publication.

36. The media have the right to report court proceedings, but editorial discretion should also come into play in determining whether to exercise this right.In this case those Council members who would uphold the complaint consider that if the reporter had taken all reasonable steps to contact the complainant it would have become clear that the complainant, having received protection from the Court, should not be subjected to further harassment through publicity about this case.

37. NOTE: After the matter was discussed at the Media Council meeting, we were advised that the complainant has not been granted subsequent name suppression because the details of the case had already been reported. This is a further unfortunate consequence of the reportage.


Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.