ASHTON AND FORBES AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 725

Council Meeting: February 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

The Press Council has declined to uphold a complaint against The Press by two Christchurch women, Hazel Ashton and Linda Forbes. The women were unhappy with a series of four court reports in June 1998 relating to a case involving Ms Forbes’ husband, John Joseph.

Mr Joseph faced charges of indecent assault, unlawful sexual connection and rape. He was discharged without conviction on the latter two charges and changed his plea to guilty to the first two charges during his trial last June.

Ms Ashton, on Ms Forbes’ behalf, argued that The Press coverage was unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate. She said that reporting of the case was incomplete, quoted comments out of context, gave credence to comments that there was no evidence that Joseph had made, and left readers with the impression that he was guilty on all counts.

She also claimed that the court reports and headlines highlighted lurid racist stereotypes about Arabs. Joseph is an Egyptian, married to a New Zealander. Ms Ashton sought an apology and retraction, to correct the public record and restore respect for the Joseph family.

Defending his paper’s coverage, the editor said he was satisfied the paper’s court coverage was fair and accurate. The Press had reported evidence presented to court and it was not its job to question the evidence of witnesses.

The paper had also reported that Joseph was discharged without conviction on two charges, but there was no getting around the fact that he had pleaded guilty to two others.

Ms Ashton did not accept the editor’s defence and took the case to the Press Council on Ms Forbes’ behalf, where both complainant and newspaper rehearsed their positions again.

The Press Council found it could not uphold the complaint. It said that coverage of the case followed the norms of court reporting in New Zealand – and evidence presented to the court was able to be published, unless suppressed by the presiding judge. The complainant seemed to be upset with the messenger.

While newspapers had to be careful to ensure coverage was fair and accurate – this, the Council said, included cross-examination – newspaper reports were not complete court records. They formed a newsworthy summary of evidence presented to a court. Coverage of the Joseph trial by The Press met that test.