CHRISTCHURCH PARENTS AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 692

Council Meeting: MAY 1998

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

The parents of a child who was a victim in a child sex abuse case involving Peter Ellis have complained to the Press Council against an opinion article published by The Press in Christchurch. The subject article was by a named free lance journalist whose central thesis was that Peter Ellis may have been wrongly convicted, and that an injustice might
thereby have been perpetrated.

The Council does not uphold the complaint.

The case brought by the Crown against Ellis was that he sexually abused children attending the Christchurch Civic Childcare Centre between 1986 and 1989 whilst he was employed at the Centre as a carer. The complainants’ child attended the Centre and was one of a number of child witnesses called by the Crown as part of its case against the defendant Ellis.

The case was heard before a Judge and Jury at the Christchurch High Court in 1993. Throughout the trial, and at all times since, Ellis has steadfastly maintained his innocence on any of the charges contained in the indictment. Before and during the trial some of the charges contained in the indictment were dismissed by the trial Judge but the Jury found
the defendant guilty on 16 counts involving seven children. There was a guilty verdict on the count invoving the child of the complainants, as well as for other children. Ellis was sentenced to 10 years prison, and he is presently serving the term.

The defendant in the High Court appealed the guilty verdicts against him, and in 1994 the Court of Appeal dismissed three counts, on special grounds concerning one child witness who retracted her evidence, but dismissed all other appeals. Ellis has continued to maintain his innocence and instructed counsel to take a petition to the Governor General seeking a pardon. The petition has been referred to the Court of Appeal and a hearing is awaited. It is fair to say that since the convictions the issue of the guilt, or innocence, of Ellis has been prominently canvassed in the public arena.

Not surprisingly the case has attracted attention in Christchurch. On Wednesday, November 26, 1997 The Press on its front page under the headline “Abuse cases ‘tip of the iceberg’” printed a bylined news article dealing generally with child abuse (including sexual abuse)of children, quoting from a statement of the then Commissioner for Children, Laurie O’Relly, that child abuse rates could be 10 times higher than official
statistics. At the foot of this article there was a reference to another part of that edition of the paper to an article under the caption “Opinion”, enigmatically headlined “Pity the abuses and those abused”, written by the freelance journalist, John Goulter, in which, he
strongly doubted the guilt of Peter Ellis. This is the article about which the complaint has been laid.

The letters of the complainants, first written to the paper’s editor, and then to the Press Council are lengthy, well constructed and closely reasoned arguments that the opinion article should not have been printed by the newspaper so as to give currency to the proposition that Ellis is innocent. The position of the parents is that if Ellis is innocent, their child who gave evidence upon which a conviction was based supplied evidence
which should not have been accepted by the Jury as a basis for finding guilt, raising at least the possibility the children’s evidence was the result of “schooling” by parents. Read as a whole the opinion article was inferentially critical of the parents of the children who gave evidence in the Ellis case, and that is the way the complainants read it. The case of
the complainants is that the foregoing are the inescapable implications, even if they are not spelled out in the challenged article.

A particular of the complaint is that the newspaper had linked two disparate views on abuse of children. The front page news article “ Tip of the iceberg”without qualification recognised that child abuse was a social problem deserving of attention. However in the same edition the opinion article “Pity the abuses etc” basically challenged the correctness
of the court decisions in the Ellis case simply by assertion, unsupported by reasoned argument, or evidence. The complainants described this as a “pernicious tactic” stating “the editor cannot have it both ways”. This important argument to the complainants makes their point as to the editor’s overall handling of the two articles, but at the same time also significantly demonstrates the extreme complexity of the socio/legal problem of sexual child abuse.

The foregoing also reveals the refinement of the arguments of the complainants, which were matched by the answers of the editor, and the journalist who also responded to the complaint. The Press Council’s decision is primarily based upon a fair reading of the opnion article itself, and not on subsequent interpretations or constructions of the
meaning of the article that have arisen in disposing of this complaint. No useful purpose is served in this adjudication by canvassing all points made by either side during the exchanges over this complaint. The complainants requested the editor to publish, under an assumed name, an article putting the contrary view to the opinion expressed by Mr Goulter. The editor was prepared to publish the article, as submitted, but final agreement was not reached on the context in which it would appear.

The response of the editor to the parent complainants, and to the Press Council, lacked nothing in sympathy for the parents’ viewpoint, which he clearly understood, but nevertheless he held steadfastly to his position that the article represented responsible journalism on an issue within the public arena, and about which there were differing viewpoints as to Ellis’s guilt. The editor maintained it was a seriously written article by a journalist honestly expressing his opinion on a matter of public interest, which the newspaper published, adequately indicating by prominent use of the word “Opinion” that the views expressed in the article were those of the writer and not of the editor or the
newspaper. In a few words the defence of the editor for the article and its overall treatment in the edition was one of fair comment and freedom of expression.

The Press Council expresses no opinion whatsoever on the substance of the debate concerning Ellis’s guilt or innocence. The obligation of the Council is to determine whether, as an ethical issue, the newspaper was correct in publishing the opinion expressed in the article by the writer. Whilst appreciating the complainants’ viewpoint entirely the Council has by its previous adjudications, which is affirmed by this one, refused to uphold a complaint that might inhibit freedom of expression. That is certainly not the way the complainants phrase their objections, but nevertheless that is what they amount to in the end. The complainants seem to be saying that on ethical grounds the newspaper should not have allowed, in the way The Press did in this edition of the paper,
currency to an assertive opinion that challenges the criminal justice system which resulted in guilty verdicts for an accused. For the reasons given that is not the view of the Press Council.

The complaint is not upheld.