BERNARD KERNOT AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES
Case Number: 2637
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2017
Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent
Publication: Sunday-Star Times
Ruling Categories: Discrimination
1. Bernard Kernot complains about a statement in the relevant article referring to one of the Brazilians convicted of the murder of the late Sir Peter Blake. The complaint relates to a reference to the murderer’s Catholic background.
The complaint was not upheld by a majority 8:1.
2. The Sunday Star-Times commissioned a freelance journalist based in Brazil to interview Ricardo Tavares, who was one of those convicted of the murder of Sir Peter Blake. Mr Tavares remains in prison in Brazil. The article focused on Tavares’ background, his involvement in drugs which continued in prison, and how he claimed in the interview that he had more recently turned his life around. It also focused on his two attempts to escape from prison, and offending that occurred in the course of that. In the interview Tavares apologised for his actions. Amongst other things, the article refers to Tavares having come from a wealthy Catholic family. Some details are given of the family and the fact they are so well known in their home town, a street was named after them.
3. Mr Kernot complains that in the article published by the Sunday Star-Times referred to above, there was gratuitous use of religious tagging. He considered the murderer’s Catholic background added nothing whatsoever to the news value, and he went on to say it was entirely gratuitous. He considers at a general level that religious tagging in crime reporting is a variation on race/ethnic tagging dealt with by the Press Council in 1986.
4. In the response, Jonathan Milne, the editor of the Sunday Star-Times, sets out the background to the commissioning of the article, which was apparently the first interview with Tavares. He said in commissioning the article they requested the freelance reporter to investigate Tavares’ background, to speak to him in prison, and to seek interviews with his family to shed light on the crime and how he came to be in the situation that led to the murder. He said the fact that he came from a wealthy family was not in line with previous reports that essentially painted him as a street thug. As well as mentioning having a street named after the family, the article pointed out that the family has paid for expensive drug rehabilitation treatment for Tavares. He said all this, including Tavares’ religious upbringing, helped paint a greater picture of who he was. He said the article also attempted to give readers a greater cultural understanding of Brazil, which has the largest Catholic population in the world, and included facts about crime and incarceration in that country.
- 5. Tavares was one of a gang convicted of the murder of Sir Peter Blake. Apparently, he is the only one who remains in prison. The extensive story on the crime from 16 years ago, and Tavares’ background, painted a completely new picture of his offending. It showed that, rather than simply being a member of a street gang, he came from a relatively privileged background and had fallen far from grace. The Press Council is satisfied that it is relevant for the story to show that not only did he come from a materially well-off family, but that they were a Catholic family. This highlighted the extent of his considerable fall. It also showed that the pernicious effects of drug abuse and addiction can fall on any part of society, regardless of background - religious and material. This was an important aspect to the interview of Tavares.
- 6. The 1986 matter referred to by Mr Kernot arose from an approach he made to the Council following what, he said, were examples of newspapers unjustifiably giving details of an offender’s racial background. The then chairman of the Council, Sir Thaddeus McCarthy wrote to editors to remind them of their, accepted, responsibility to avoid irrelevant mention of a person’s colour or race.
- 7. The same matter was considered by the Council in 2013.[i] A report of a rape trial mentioned the ethnicity of the offenders. The Council upheld the complaint stating “Without any such context, the description of them as Fijian Indian was quite gratuitous and places an unnecessary emphasis on their race”.
- 8. We consider that Tavares’ religious background was as relevant as his material background in portraying his story. We are satisfied it is far removed from earlier cases, relating to ethnic or racial tagging in relation to criminal offending. This a case about one of the offender’s background based on his first interview. Part of its quite proper focus was on Tavares drug addiction and how addiction was no respecter of material wealth or religious belief.We see no breach of any of the Press Council’s principles.
The complaint is not upheld, with one member Liz Brown dissenting.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.
[i] De Bres v Waikato Times June 2013.