A COMPLAINT AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 567

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 1995

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

An Auckland woman who complained to the New Zealand Press Council about court reports in the New Zealand Herald relating to a case alleging sexual abuse by a North Shore man of three daughters, has had her complaint dismissed. The man, her father, was acquitted by a jury and had his name permanently suppressed by the Court.

Ms Z, told the Press Council she was unhappy with the newspaper coverage of the case on two grounds. The first was that in reporting the case, the newspaper did not canvass her testimony, concentrating instead on that of her two sisters who told the court they had had "recovered memories" after counselling. Ms Z said her testimony was based on "things I never forgot." However, in one report the Herald had referred to all three daughters giving evidence from "recovered memories," she said.

The newspaper in failing to report her evidence, had left readers with an unbalanced impression of the basis of the jury's decision, she continued. Her second complaint related to a Press Association report published in the New Zealand Herald on 5 October which said the ACC was reviewing its payments to the daughters involved. Ms Z said she had checked progress of the review with the ACC whose spokesman had told her there was no review and that the newspaper report had been a misrepresentation.

Ms Z said, therefore, that this article, taken with the earlier court reports implied that the charges laid against her father had no basis and that they were motivated by a desire for ACC money.

In response, the editor of the New Zealand Herald, Mr Peter Scherer said that it was true Ms Z's evidence was not reported. However Herald news space was limited. It was rarely practicable to cover all aspects of a case or all witnesses. He said evidence about "recovered memories" had been a feature, albeit disputed, of this particular case. This was supported by defence evidence and the judge's summing-up.

Coverage, Mr Scherer agreed, was selective and partial insofar as that word meant "in part" rather than disposed to one side or the other. This he said was true of news coverage inside and outside of courtrooms.

Mr Scherer acknowledged a slight discrepancy in reporting the case; in all but one instance, the Herald had said two of the three daughters had given testimony based on "recovered memories"; on one occasion only had it said all three daughters had given evidence on that basis. He disputed that that discrepancy, resulting from that report being written by someone not completely familiar with the case, had given an unbalanced or false impression of the basis on which the jury made its decision to acquit.

On the second complaint, the editor said the NZPA report had been published in good faith. The ACC had expressed no concern to the Herald about it and the Press Association itself was meticulous about correcting errors.

He rejected any suggestion that the NZPA report and the Herald coverage were linked in any way, other than they related to the same case. He also rejected any suggestion the reports implied the charges of sexual abuse were motivated by a desire for ACC money.

The Press Council found the newspaper gave fair and full coverage to a case of public interest. The Council did not accept that the Herald set out to present only one side of the case. That the newspaper chose not to cover Ms Z's evidence -a matter of news judgment properly exercised - and, at one stage, made a small error in reporting the kind of testimony given by the daughters, did not, in the Council's view, materially affect the overall, otherwise balanced, coverage of the case.

The Council also did not accept that the coverage in total, including the NZPA report of an ACC review, was intended to, or did imply, that the charges were motivated by a desire by the complainants to get ACC funding.

While reminding editors they had a duity to inquire into complaints drawn to their attention about any article, including those sourced from the Press Association, the Council commended the Herald editor for his intention to pursue the ACC review issue with the ACC in order to complete the paper's coverage of the case.

Mr Scherer, who is a member of the Press Council, was not present at the meeting when the complaint against his newspaper was discussed.