LYNMARIE EDWARDS AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 995

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2004

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Photographs
Accuracy

Lynmarie Edwards complained about the way The Dominion Post used a photograph of a Gisborne-based diving group which included her. Her complaint was that the photograph and caption implied by association with the accompanying story that she and those in the photograph had Mongrel Mob connections and were involved in poaching and/or the abuse of customary fisheries regulations. Ms Edwards denied vehemently that those things were true, and said her reputation had been damaged. She complained that the newspaper had breached Press Council principles relating to accuracy, correction, subterfuge and manipulation of photographs.

The Press Council has upheld the complaint.

The photograph and story headed "Maori fish scams" appeared in the Weekend section of the March 20, 2004 Dominion Post. The caption to the photograph said "Dive training: A member of a Gisborne-based dive course flashes the Mongrel Mob sign as he emerges from the sea." While the man referred to was in the front of the photograph, Ms Edwards points out she is clearly identifiable in the group, as evidenced by derogatory comments she reported receiving about "fish stealing" after the story appeared. The group comprised seven persons.

A second photograph of crayfish ran with the story and was captioned "Seized crays: More than 500 crayfish, many undersized, confiscated recently on the East Coast. It was claimed they had been caught according to customary rights."

The story was largely based on an interview with Ministry of Fisheries team leader Martin Williams. Quoting Mr Williams saying the coast was being plundered, the newspaper reported concerns that known poachers were setting up bogus Maori trust boards to issue permits for substantial amounts of paua and crayfish, that permits were being written after a catch to legitimise poaching and that taxpayer-funded diving courses were being used by organised criminals to provide a ready-made poaching labour force. The newspaper quoted Mr Williams: "Half the local Mongrel Mob have been through [the courses], hardly anyone gets a job so the loans don't get paid and they use their dive skills and gear to go poaching."

If a different photograph had been used with the story, the complaint may not have arisen as Ms Edwards is not referred to in the story. The photograph is the nub of the complaint. Photographs identify, and photographs used with a story inevitably take on the colour and substance of that story, links which the average reader automatically looks for.

Ms Edwards through her lawyers challenged aspects of the story but was principally concerned about the damage to her reputation through the photograph. Her complaint outlined the way in which the photograph was taken. A photographer and reporter approached the dive school students on the beach. After agreeing to be photographed, the course members had to walk and pose several times, being told to look as if they were having fun, before the photographer was satisfied. Ms Edwards says they were not told what kind of story was being written.

When the dive school operator found out that the out-of-town journalists were working on a story about "Maori fishing scams" he contacted the reporter with a request that the photograph of his diving school students not be used. Ms Edwards told the Press Council the reporter informed the dive school head that the photographs were for a business story he was doing apart from the fishing scams report, but nonetheless the photograph appeared with the scams story.

The newspaper disagreed through its lawyers that any of the implications suggested by Ms Edwards could be taken from the use of the photograph with the story. The editor in rebutting Ms Edwards's points to the Press Council said the reporter no longer worked for the newspaper so they had been unable to discuss details of Ms Edwards's complaint with him. However, as the first complaint alleged defamation and the newspaper's lawyers were of the opinion the complainant had not been defamed, no correction or apology had been forthcoming.

In respect of the complaint to the Press Council, the editor defended the story in general and said the newspaper did not take the same meanings Ms Edwards took from the photographs and accompanying story. "We did not say the unidentified course members in the main photograph accompanying our story were Mongrel Mob members or that they were involved in organised crime or enrolled in dive courses to gain skills to undertake illegal activities. We did not suggest that [the dive school in question] is used by gangs and organised crime to train poachers; we did not identify any dive school or person either in the photograph or the story."

But the photograph is linked to the story by the caption referring to a dive course and to a "Mongrel Mob sign." Whether the hand sign with thumb and little finger extended is a Mongrel Mob sign or not - held up to ear and mouth, it is a popular sign for a phone call - the fact the newspaper identified it as such without qualifying or isolating the person using it would lead a reasonable reader to the clear inference that this group is associated with the Mongrel Mob.

The only dive courses mentioned in the story are those used by criminals connected with fishing scams and the only reference to the Mongrel Mob is in association with dive courses for the purposes of moving on to poaching. No evidence in the story connects the people in the photograph to these claims to justify the use of the photograph in question.

The call for a report to the Cabinet on the allegations of customary fishing rights abuse, and actions and comments by the government which followed the story, show the newspaper highlighted an issue of concern. But that good was undone by the offhand use of the photograph, taken with a degree of subterfuge, that showed people not connected by any concrete evidence in the story to the allegations cited, and by a caption inferring links with the story that were not proven.

The complaint is upheld.

Ms Suzanne Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.