GEOFF THOMAS AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES / STUFF
Case Number: 2676
Council Meeting: JUNE 2018
Publication: Waikato Times
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Headlines and Captions
Stuff ran an article on June 11, 2018 headlined “Scout leader who molested nine-year-old boy jailed for five years”
A follow up article published the following day was headlined “Paedo’s unhealthy Scout fetish: ‘Creep’ was ‘an oversized little boy’.”
The same articles were published in the Waikato Times on both days under shorter headlines “Scout leader molested boy” and “Paedo’s ‘unhealthy’ Scout fetish”.
It is claimed the articles breached Media Council principles relating to headlines, accuracy, fairness and balance.
Geoff Thomas complained that the articles and headlines implied that the offender Paul Nimmo was a Scouting NZ leader when he had been excluded from the organisation and had set up his own organisation before the offending took place. The items were deliberately misleading and dishonestly designed to heighten controversy and at the expense of Scouting NZ.
Chief News Director, Waikato, Wayne Timmo, said much consideration was put into the heading prior to publication in fairness to the scouting organisation and clarity for the reader.
The judge agreed with the prosecution that the root of Nimmo’s offending sprang from his involvement in the scouting movement and the opportunity it presented for inappropriate involvement with young people.
The story recorded that Scouting NZ removed him from the organisation in 2015 before the offending occurred.
Calling the offender a scout leader was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the reader and malign Scouting NZ.
After being kicked out of Scouting NZ Nimmo went on to set up his own group of young people and was effectively operating as a self-appointed scout leader conducting similar activities, albeit without the supervision of a national body.
It seemed fair to call him a scout leader as that was the context of his offending.
There was an obligation to readers to call it as plainly as possible. To use the quack like a duck analogy - when a man who used to be a scout leader runs his own scout-like group, doing scout-like things, it seemed fair to call him a scout leader in the heading. The detail of when he was with Scouts NZ and when he wasn’t was included in the story.
It was clear there were sensitivities around this topic because of previous offending in the scouting context, but the first priority was to tell the story as clearly as possible rather than act in a public relations capacity for any organisation involved.
This complaint raises issues of branding where proprietary names are widely used to describe a generic product – for example where Cellotape is commonly used to refer to sticky tape. Companies that own copyrighted names or trademarks complain when this happens on occasions where they believe a story unfairly puts their product in a poor light.
In this complaint, the question is whether the use of the words “scout” or “scout leader” are protected and whether their use in this context is inaccurate, unfair or dishonest.
Section 5 of The Scout Association Act of 1956 gives protection to the brand with the following clause:
Except with the consent of the Governor-General in Council
and subject to the provisions of this section, no association of
persons, whether incorporated or not, shall exercise the functions
for which it is formed under the name “Scout Association”
or under a name that contains those words or the words
“Scout” or “Boy Scout”.
It is not clear how that protection extends to the media coverage.
We also do not know what Nimmo’s group was called as that was suppressed by the court.But, on information provided to the Media Council, the group was not named a scout group and Nimmo did not call himself a scout leader.
There is no argument that he was a former scout leader and could have been accurately described as such, but the articles went further and may have misled readers by indicating he was a current scout leader.
We take the point made by Stuff that Nimmo may have acted like a scout leader but that is a matter of opinion.
Nimmo could have accurately, and just as readily, been described as a youth leader. It would have been as compelling without tainting the Scouts, an organisation which has a brand which it has a right to protect. It did, after all, dismiss Nimmo before the offending took place and should not bear an unwarranted taint for his subsequent crimes.
The complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen (Chairman), Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.