In a split 6:4 decision, the Press Council upholds a complaint by Craig McConnell against The Timaru Herald over a report claiming he had convictions for rape and car theft.

On 30 November 2010 The Timaru Herald published a report about an unsolved murder in Queensland 27 years ago. As part of the report, they interviewed the dead woman’s parents and a man now living in Timaru, Craig McConnell, who had been tried and acquitted of her murder.

The article included details of Mr McConnell’s past criminal convictions, including two convictions for murder as well as convictions for rape, armed robbery and car theft.

Mr McConnell states that he does not have convictions for rape and car theft and this is confirmed by his lawyer.

Prior to publication, on 25 November 2010, Mr McConnell’s lawyer had notified The Timaru Herald by letter that they should not rely upon a column appearing in Queensland media as being a well-informed and reliable source of information.

The Complaint
Mr McConnell’s lawyer complained to the newspaper that the story accused his client of being a convicted rapist and car thief and this was factually inaccurate. He also objected to being asked by the newspaper to confirm that his client did not have those convictions, saying it was up to the newspaper to check facts before publication.

The newspaper published a retraction, on 3 December, saying it had been unable to substantiate the allegations that Mr McConnell had convictions for rape and car theft. The newspaper apologised to Mr McConnell for publishing those allegations.

Mr McConnell’s lawyer also complained that the newspaper had failed to provide balance in the article by not quoting fully remarks made to McConnell in an email by a police officer saying he had been surprised that McConnell had been committed for trial. That would have made readers aware that the police officer thought the case against his client had been weak.

The Newspaper’s Response
Timaru Herald editor David King disputed that the article wasn’t fair or balanced. He accepted that the newspaper had been wrong in its claim that Mr McConnell had convictions for rape and car theft. He said once they were challenged on this, the newspaper investigated and corrected the mistake as soon as possible.

Mr King said that, aside from that mistake, the article was fair and balanced and put Mr McConnell’s side of the story “which was, effectively, that the police had done a shoddy job”.

Unsolved murder cases will always be of interest to people and the media. In its report of this cold case, The Timaru Herald did provide fair coverage of the views of the man acquitted of the murder along with those of the murdered woman’s family and the police.

The Press Council does not accept that editing the quote from the police officer affected the balance of the article. It was already clear from the report that the police handling of the case was being called into question.

Where The Timaru Herald was irresponsible, was in stating that Mr McConnell was a convicted rapist and car thief. This was incorrect.

When the newspaper realised its mistake, it published a retraction and apology within a matter of days. The retraction itself is not at issue, only that it was necessary in the first place.

The Timaru Herald had been warned prior to publication that any information used from Queensland media needed to be checked for accuracy before being published in the local newspaper. Given this clear warning the newspaper should have carefully checked the accuracy of information used in the article. It did not do this.

Despite the later retraction and apology, the information in the article was already in the public domain and the impact on Mr McConnell already commenced. It is also likely that not every person who had read the original article would read the subsequent retraction and apology.

While the timely retraction and apology by The Timaru Herald would usually be remedy enough, given the pre-publication warning by Mr McConnell’s lawyer, and given the seriousness of the published information and impact on Mr McConnell, it is not enough in this instance.

If a newspaper intends to publish information regarding a person’s criminal convictions, they have a responsibility to ensure that it is accurate. It would be unrealistic to say that a person known to have been convicted of rape would not be viewed as a possible future risk in the eyes of the general public.

In this case The Timaru Herald had advance warning that there were serious inaccuracies in information published elsewhere, but did not verify the facts.

The majority of the Press Council upholds this complaint.

Four members of the Press Council would not have upheld the complaint. The minority thought that since the lawyer was aware of inaccuracies in the Gold Coast Bulletin report he should have been more specific in his letter to the editor. That may have saved the newspaper and his client from exposure to it.

Many editors receive correspondence from lawyers, which they understand to be an attempt to dissuade the newspaper from publishing material about their client. This overture would have seemed no different.

The article contained incorrect information but in the minority view the correction, published promptly, remedied this.

Press Council members upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees and Lynn Scott

Press Council members not upholding the complaint were Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.


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