GEOFFREY CHURCHMAN AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2832

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Geoffrey Churchman complained about two articles published on the RNZ website, concerning former Kapiti Coast district councillor David Scott, who was convicted in 2018 of indecent assault against a council staff member.

[2] The first article, on 14 August 2019, says that documents released to RNZ under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show the council had received complaints from women about Mr Scott’s behaviour since 2015, and that the council’s chief executive had initiated a Code of Conduct complaint against Mr Scott (including evidence from six complainants). The complaint was dropped after Mr Scott’s appeal against his conviction failed, and he was removed from office.

[3] The article reported that Mr Scott was planning to stand for election again, and that legislation did not outlaw those who had been disqualified from office or convicted of a crime from standing for office. The Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta was quoted as saying it appeared there was a loophole in the legislation and she was seeking advice from the Department of Internal Affairs.

[4] The second article, on 20 August, reported that the woman Mr Scott was convicted of assaulting was applying for a restraining order against him. The woman was quoted as saying Mr Scott had been emailing “all sorts of people about me”. She also complained about “mannequins that were put outside the council, the glaring from his supporters at council meetings, the mob-like attendance at court fixtures, the posts on Waikanae Watch, and the unsolicited contact of my family members.” Mr Scott was quoted as responding that he wasn’t clear why she was going to court. “I’m not clear what her grudge is or why she is still thinking about me,” Mr Scott said.

[5] The story also covered concerns about the limited options for councils dealing with concerns about elected officials’ behaviour and quoted the Minister of Local Government as saying she was aware the local government legislation required improvement. The story also detailed approaches the victim made to officials with suggestions for how the system could be improved.

The Complaint

[6] Geoffrey Churchman complained that the two stories were based on statements from the woman that Mr Scott had been convicted of assaulting. The statements had been accepted at face value and the reporter had not discussed them with those who had opposing views. Mr Churchman said the statements from the woman Mr Scott assaulted were motivated by Mr Scott’s decision to seek re-election and that the reporting was an “interference in the electoral process”.

[7] Mr Churchman is co-editor of the blog Waikanae Watch. He complained that the woman’s allegations named Waikanae Watch, but the blog had not been contacted by the reporter.

[8] The article did not give Mr Scott an equal right of reply to “all the allegations” the woman had made and the story only included two short comments from him.

[9] Mr Churchman complained about several aspects of the claims against Mr Scott. He said there was no “mob” of David Scott supporters at the courtroom. Mr Churchman said the woman alleged there was a telephone smear campaign, but this involved only one call. David Scott was not involved with the mannequins. The woman claimed in an affidavit in support of her restraining order that she and her husband were threatened by Mr Scott, but this was false, Mr Churchman said. It was insinuated that Mr Scott had tried to make contact with the woman’s family members, but no evidence was supplied.

[10] The woman’s statement that elected officials weren’t held to the same standards as council employees was absurd, Mr Churchman said.

The Response

[11] RNZ replied that Mr Scott had been approached and that his comments that had a direct relationship to the issues raised with him were included.

[12] RNZ refuted Mr Churchman’s suggestion that the reporting was “interference in the electoral process”, saying that it was relevant to electors “as they move to make an informed decision in the local body elections”.

[13] Allegations of a phone smear campaign were not included in the articles, so that aspect of the complaint was not upheld,RNZ said. The fact that the application for the restraining order was being made was put to Mr Scott, but he chose not to respond.

[14] Comments from the woman about “mob-like” attendances at court and councillors not being held to the same standards as employees were her opinion.

[15] RNZ also had material that it said showed proof of the behaviours the victim complained about, showing that it was not the case that the reporter had merely taken the word of the complainant, as Mr Churchman alleged.RNZ said the email it provided was sent by Mr Scott to a number of councillors and council employees - it named the woman at the centre of the court case, contrary to the suppression order.RNZ also had a copy of a Facebook exchange between Mr Scott and a member of the woman’s family, which formed part of her complaint.RNZ provided these to the Media Council, with the woman’s name redacted. In his final comment to the Media Council, Mr Churchman said Mr Scott had no knowledge of the email and had asked police to identify the sender. Email addresses were commonly hijacked, Mr Churchman said, yet RNZ had assumed the email was genuine.

[16] The 20 August article also reported on contact between the victim and the Department and Minister of Internal Affairs regarding reforms of policy and procedures relating to how sitting councillors could be sanctioned for inappropriate behaviour. These matters did not require comment from Mr Scott, RNZ said.

The Decision

[17] Mr Churchman complained about the two articles under Principle One: Accuracy Fairness and Balance.

[18] He complained that the stories were an attempt to interfere with the electoral process. The Media Council believes that it was an important and proper story forRNZ to cover, given that Mr Scott was standing for council again, and that voters have a right to information about candidates. It notes that the main source of information for the first story was an official information act request which revealed a significant number of other complaints and concern about Mr Scott’s behaviour from the council’s chief executive. A government minister’s comments that the situation had revealed a loophole in the legislation and that legislation required improvement also indicated that running the stories was in the public interest.

[19] Mr Churchman was also concerned that the woman’s statements about the stress of the proceedings and the reasons for seeking a restraining order were not challenged byRNZ. The Media Council notes that two of the matters raised by Mr Churchman as reasons the victim said she was seeking the order - the phone smear campaign and that the woman and her husband felt threatened by Mr Scott - were not included in the story, so are not relevant to the complaint.

[20] The Media Council notes that the statements about the matters that had caused the woman stress were presented as her opinion.RNZ also provided evidence that backed up some of the claims - an email sent to a number of people from Mr Scott naming the woman, and a Facebook post to a family member that also named her. The Media Council has seen no evidence that would lead it to believe these are not genuine. The requirement for balance was met by offering Mr Scott the opportunity to comment on the restraining order and reporting his comment.

[21] Mr Churchman also complained that the blog he co-edits, Waikanae Watch, was mentioned in the second article and that Waikanae Watch had not been contacted by the reporter. Given that the reference to the blog was a minor aspect of the stories and the victim was simply saying that posts on the blog, among a range of other matters, had caused her stress, the Media Council does not believe that a balancing reply from Waikanae Watch was required.

[22] The Media Council could find no inaccuracy in the stories and believes as Mr Scott was asked to reply and his relevant comments were included, the stories were fair and balanced.

The complaint is not upheld.

At the time this complaint was lodged it was assessed for fast-tracking, because of Mr Scott’s candidacy in the local body election.However, once it became known that he had withdrawn from the election process the complaint was processed through the usual procedure.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff and Christina Tay.

Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.