CHRISTCHURCH BOYS HIGH SCHOOL AGAINST THE PRESS / STUFF

Case Number: 2756

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Children and Young People
Court Reporting
Schools, Identification of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Christchurch Boys’ High School (CBHS) complains against Stuff and The Press about an article published on December 3, 2018. The complaint is of a breach of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), and 3 (Children and young people).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. The article in question is headed Schoolboy charged with toothbrush sex assault at sports tournament and reports on a charge of sexual violation laid against a 17-year-old who had been a member of a CBHS sports team competing at a tournament in the North Island. The boy was not named (it was noted that a name suppression order had been made). The case was compared to that of the Taradale “broomstick boys” who had been convicted of a serious sexual assault in 2001 and sentenced to jail.

The Complaint

4. Taylor Shaw, Barristers and Solicitors, lodged a complaint on behalf of CBHS, first directly with Stuff andThe Press and then with the Media Council. CBHS complains that the comparison with the Taradale case is unfair and irresponsible. There were a number of aggravating circumstances in the Taradale case and the comparison runs the risk of prejudicing the investigation into the CBHS incident and colouring public opinion on it before the facts have been ascertained. More importantly, the allegations are stated as facts. This is contrary to the presumption of innocence, and is therefore both inaccurate and unfair.

5. The parties involved in the case are all young persons and accordingly there must be an exceptional degree of public interest before their interests can be overridden. While it is possible that such a public interest could arise after trial and conviction, any public interest has not yet reached that level, and may never reach it.

6. CBHS requested the removal of the article, and acknowledgement of the breach of Media Council principles and a meeting with the editor. The meeting took place, but the complaint remained unresolved.

7. In further submissions, Taylor Shaw expanded on the original complaint, emphasising again that there has as yet been no judicial proceeding and accordingly no definitive findings of fact. They sayThe Press appears to be suggesting the onus of proof should be on the defendant and is also assuming that he alleged facts will not be disputed in court.They say the disciplinary action taken by CBHS is a private matter between the school and the student and is irrelevant to the presumption of innocence. The Press was not a party to the disciplinary proceedings and is not entitled to information about them.

8. Further submissions were also made on the question of the public interest and on the application of Principle 3. It is submitted that insufficient steps were taken to protect the identities of the young people involved. By publishing their ages, the school they attended, the result of the disciplinary action, the nature of the event they were attending and the specific nature of the alleged incident, the relevant individuals were identifiable in the community and linked to the offending.The Press provided the school community with all the tools a young person would need to establish who was involved

The Response

9. Kamala Hayman, editor, responded to the complaint. She said she was unable to identify any inaccuracies in the report and she did not accept the view that the reporting was unfair. While there were differences, there were also striking similarities between the two cases and reference to the previous incident was both relevant and appropriate.In relation to the argument about the presumption of innocence, she noted that the school seems to have accepted that wrongdoing had occurred as it had taken disciplinary action against a number of students and one had been expelled. The basic facts of the incident do not appear to be disputed, but it will be for the court to decide whether a criminal offence has been committed.

10. Ms Hayman said the publications take the protection of children seriously and outlined the steps taken to protect the identity of the victim. However there is, she says, an overwhelming public interest in reporting this sort of incident. Parents and the wider community have the right to know that an alleged sexual violation has occurred, that it involved at least one pupil from a Christchurch school and that a criminal charge has been laid. No person involved in the incident has been named, and it will be for the courts to decide whether the person charged is to be named. Public awareness of this sort of event is important to ensure that other young people in vulnerable situations can be protected. In addition, the incident had been widely discussed in the Christchurch school and senior school sporting communities. It was the role of the media to publish an accurate factual account to reduce the circulation of disinformation and rumour.

11. In further submissions, Ms Hayman largely reiterated the original response but added that reporting on the case could not reasonably wait for the court process, with the next court date some months ahead. Rumours about the incident had been circulating for some time before the publication of the article, and had reached the newsroom from three separate sources including from people who had no direct connection with the school or the sport concerned. She also noted that it is disingenuous to suggest that school disciplinary action is private, that the identities of those involved are not known in the school community or that any alleged misdemeanours are not widely discussed.

The Decision

12. There is no identifiable inaccuracy in the report. CBHS does not appear to dispute the facts of the incident, rather saying that they have not been established though the judicial process. It has accepted that there are grounds for serious disciplinary action against the students involved. The only uncertainty is whether the incident amounted to criminal activity – a matter for the courts to decide. However at no point did the report say that such activity had occurred. Rather, the very first paragraph of the report made it clear that a charge had been laid and was to be heard in due course. The fourth and fifth paragraphs expand on the nature of the charge, and while it would probably have been wiser to preface these paragraphs with “it is alleged” or similar words, it is clear from the context that they set out allegations as well as facts. The Media Council sees nothing inaccurate in this approach to the story.

13. As to the question of fairness, there are indeed similarities between this case and the Taradale case as submitted by Ms Hayman.No doubt many readers were surprised and disappointed that despite the publicity surrounding the Taradale case and its aftermath, including prison sentences, there could still be an incident of sexual assault involving senior school students attending a sports tournament. There may have been aggravating circumstances in the Taradale case that were not present in this case, but the fundamental issue is so similar that is not unfair to make the comparison, or to draw the conclusion that more needs to be done to prevent similar cases in the future. The same applies to the question of any prejudice to the investigation of the CBHS case or to public opinion on it. The report made it clear that the case is yet to be heard and the full facts yet to be established, but the undisputed facts are sufficient to invite comparison without resulting in prejudice.

14. Principle 3 protects the interests of children or young persons unless there is an exceptional degree of public interest in overriding such interests. There is undoubtedly a very substantial degree of public interest in reporting on cases of this nature. Ms Hayman is right to say that the public needs to be aware that this sort of incident can happen so that other vulnerable young people can be protected.The Media Council would add that it is also important that the public be informed that this sort of incident is still happening despite anti-bullying campaigns and despite well-publicised convictions in earlier cases. However the Council sees no need to determine whether the public interest in this case is exceptional as it is of the view that there is nothing in the Stuff/Press report that is prejudicial to the interests of any of the young people involved in the incident.It would be unreasonable to expect that the identities of the young people and the nature of the allegations are not already known within the school community, and possibly more widely. Reasonable action has been taken to protect the identities of the young people from disclosure to the wider community, and it is noted that the publications have taken the sensible step of disabling the “comments” function on the Stuff report and of refraining from posting the report on Facebook thus protecting the young people from excessively disturbing or threatening comments.

15. The complaint is not upheld.

Determination

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.

Sir John Hansen took no part in the consideration of this complaint.