GEOFFREY CHURCHMAN AGAINST THE DOMINION POST / STUFF

Case Number: 2745

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Court Reporting
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
False Accusation
Names Suppression Of
Photographs
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Overview

[1] This matter involves two complaints by Geoffrey Churchman, who is the co-editor of Waikanae Watch, in relation to various articles written about Kāpiti district councillor David Scott and Paraparaumu resident Dr Kerry Bolton.Both individuals recently appeared in court.A jury found Cr Scott guilty of indecent assault in May 2018.Dr Bolton pleaded guilty to twice naming ‘Adele’[1] on a talkback radio show.

[2] The first complaint relates to a Dominion Post and Stuff article dated November 3, 2018 which the complainant says breaches NZ Media Council principle 1.

[3] The article that was published on Stuff carried the headline Victim of Kāpiti councillor David Scott says speaking out cost her everything and ‘derailed’ her life.There was also an article published on the same day inThe Dominion Post titled Victim regrets fighting back.

[4] On December 13, 2018, Stuff published an article titled Councillor opposes victim’s restraining order, more complaints revealed.

[5] Mr Churchman complaining in his capacity as co-editor of Waikanae Watch is not only complaining about the contents of the newspaper articles but also the approach taken by the journalist who authored these articles.



[1] The person who lodged a complaint of indecent assault against Councillor David Scott cannot be named in the articles, so she is referred to by her chosen pseudonym, ‘Adele’.

The Complaint

[6] For the sake of completeness, Mr Churchman refers to newspaper articles that were published prior to the date of the articles to be discussed in these complaints.While it provides historical context for which Mr Churchman is lodging his complaints, the content of those articles will not be referred to in this decision as this is beyond the scope of the NZ Media Council complaint procedure.

Complaint one: Articles published on November 3, 2018

[7] In relation to the first complaint, the complainant suggests that NZ Media Council principle 1 has been breached, “The current articles about which I am complaining lack balance, are inaccurate, libellous, and distressing to Cr Scott, Dr Bolton and their families.”

[8] There is a suggestion by Mr Churchman that the article also lacks balance and fairness (NZ Media Council principle 1), “No effort was made… to verify the accuracy of the allegations by ‘Adele’ or obtain Cr Scott’s reaction to them.”

[9] The Stuff articles dated November 3 and December 13 carry photographs of both Cr Scott as well as Dr Bolton, “In the articles onStuff and in The Dominion Post there are allegations made in regard to what are termed Cr Scott’s ‘team of supporters.’On theStuff page there are prominent pictures of Dr Bolton who is the only identified ‘supporter’ in this imagined ‘team’. The only name able to be publicly identified as associated with these allegations is his.”

[10] The article includes information which Mr Churchman suggests is misleading, “The claims include that a man was issued a ‘harassment notice’ after placing mannequins in a protest outside the Kāpiti Coast District Council (KCDC). No name is given...the insinuation is that Dr Bolton is the person responsible.”

[11] Mr Churchman refers to the alleged treatment of ‘Adele’ by “Cr Scott’s small number of supporters” who are said to have “abused, hounded, terrified” her online” however Mr Churchman posits, “There is no evidence…that ‘Adele’ has been ‘abused, hounded or terrified’, by Cr Scott’s supporters.Dr Bolton and others (there is no known ‘team’ or ‘group’) have written several entries on local web-magazines Waikanae Watch and Kāpiti Independent News as to the nature of the allegations, that is all.However, social media is full of derogatory statements about both Dr Bolton and Cr Scott; shall it be supposed that they are from a ‘team’ of ‘Adele’s’ supporters involved in a smear campaign?”

[12] Further to the information about posting information online above, there were hints about ‘Adele’s’ identity also being posted.Mr Churchman says “Documents filed at Court show that ‘hints’ as to her identity were published from the start by the news media, identifying her as a ‘female senior manager’; the only one at the KCDC at the time.As far as I know, she did not, and has not, made any effort to have media delete this description, which remains public.”

[13] Quoting from the article, Mr Churchman relays a claim by ‘Adele’ that one of Cr Scott’s supporters “scares the living crap out of me and that she has visions of him showing up at her home.”Mr Churchman advises “Again, Dr Bolton is the only ‘supporter’ named.Dr Bolton says, with high credibility, that he has never posted a threat to anyone, has no interest in dealing with this woman, or her family, on any basis, and there is no reason to believe he does.”

[14] There is a suggestion by Mr Churchman that a comment in the article “‘Adele’s’ assertion that there were ‘many complaints’ against Cr Scott, but those involved were too scared to lodge official KCDC Code of Conduct complaints because ‘they knew who his friends were’” is “intended to portray Dr Bolton as a threat.”




[15] In his view, Mr Churchman insists that the journalist “identifies Dr Bolton in his community of 23 years as someone of violent and malicious intent.This is irresponsible and inflammatory. [The journalist’s] intention can only be to make him (and his wife) appear pariahs and the subjects of harassment in public.”

[16] Mr Churchman asserts, “The real victims are Cr Scott and Dr Bolton.”

[17] There is a request by Mr Churchman that “Stuff, Dominion Post and any other Fairfax media carrying this article publish a retraction of similar size and positioning as the material in question.”


Complaint two: Article published on December 13, 2018

[18] Mr Churchman was present at the court hearing on 12 December which is the subject of the article published onStuff and titled Councillor opposes victim’s restraining order, more complaints revealed.The hearing concerned an application by ‘Adele’ for a restraining order against Scott.

[19] The article has been written with the “same bias towards that woman” suggests Mr Churchman.

[20] The principle that Mr Churchman alleges has been breached is NZ Media Council principle 1, “… [the journalist’s] latest article again omits important facts.”

[21] Mr Churchman lists a number of ‘important facts’ which he suggests have been omitted from the article.In amongst the listed ‘important facts’ are the following assertions by Mr Churchman:

  • “It is perfectly legitimate for someone being accused of something to investigate the ulterior motivation and background of the accuser by contacting, directly or indirectly, those who know the accuser.”
  • “‘Adele’s’ son contacted by David Scott was her former step-son, the son of one of her ex-husbands.”

[22] Two further key points which Mr Churchman raises pertain to firstly an assertion that there was a misquote of what the Judge said.According to Mr Churchman the Judge asked the following, “whether the two parties agreed not to contact each other except through David Scott’s barrister and via e-mail not ordinary mail, which both agreed.”Secondly, there is a dispute about the number of complaints laid by other KCDC staff regarding Cr Scott’s conduct in the workplace.

[23] There is a suggestion by Mr Churchman that the journalist does not take into account the effect on Cr Scott or his family, “Lastly, [the journalist] does not include any comment by David Scott on the effect on him and his family of this frivolous matter and the accompanying distortions given the front page prominence it has had in your newspaper.”

The Response

[24] Seamus Boyer, Chief News Director, Wellington, has provided a response on behalf ofStuff.

[25] Referring to the outcome of the court cases, Mr Boyer says the articles that were written are “balanced and accurate, based on outcomes in our court system involving both Scott and Kerry Bolton.You may disagree with those outcomes, but one was found guilty and the other pleaded guilty on charges relating to their conduct with respect to the victim.”

[26] In relation to the picture of Dr Bolton, Mr Boyer states, “Bolton features in the article because he pleaded guilty to breaching name suppression over the case, which is entirely relevant in the context of the story. It is simply untrue that the article identifies Bolton as someone of violent and malicious intent.The article clearly states that Bolton pleaded guilty to twice naming [‘Adele’] on a talkback show.”

[27] Responding to the comment about a ‘team of supporters’, Mr Boyer says, “As for the team of supporters, there are a number of people known to support Scott, as you will well be aware.We make no claim, nor imply, that Bolton is a threat.Examples of the treatment ‘Adele’ has received are clearly listed in the article.More recently Scott has admitted to contacting members of her family on Facebook leading ‘Adele’ to seek a restraining order against him.”

[28] My Boyer says that there were attempts to contact Cr Scott, “At every step of the way we have contacted David Scott for comment and have included his comments in our articles when he has chosen to respond, and we have detailed records to back that up.”

[29] There is an assertion by Mr Boyer that ‘Adele’ is entitled to be heard, “As a victim of indecent assault, by a sitting councillor, ‘Adele’ has the right to a voice, and we will not apologise for giving her one.She also has a right to her fears and regrets.”

[30] In relation to the second article, Mr Boyer addresses Mr Churchman’s list of things “which he believes we should have included in our story.While Churchman may have views on ‘Adele’s’ motives, what her lawyer might or might not have told her client, and whether a stepson is a son – none are pertinent to our articles.”

The Decision

[31] The complaint letter which is dated November 7, 2018 was originally sent to NZ Media Council and the Executive Director noted on December 3, 2018 that she had “no idea” where the letter had been on its “long journey” to the Media Council but that it had been received. Mr Boyer on behalf Stuff acknowledged the delay in responding to the original complaint which had gone unanswered for approximately 2 weeks.The Council acknowledges that there is a lot of pressure on media outlets however that does not negate the responsibility to respond to complaints in a timely manner.

[32] In determining whether NZ Media Council Principle 1 has been breached, the Council must give due consideration whether the articles have misled or misinformed readers by commission or omission.The focus for article one was to provide an account of the wider experience of a person indecently assaulted in the workplace and the fall out that occurred following the incident.The perpetrator in this matter was found guilty by a jury in May 2018.The second article provided commentary on the opposition to the victim’s application for a restraining order.Taking into consideration the full context of the complaints lodged by Mr Churchman and the response provided by Mr Boyer we find that there was no intent to mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.Mr Churchman suggested that the accuracy of the victim’s allegations were not verified.The article focused more on a retrospective review of the experience by ‘Adele’ rather than allegations.Mr Boyer has offered his assurance that there were attempts to contact Cr Scott and to include comment when he has provided it.Further, detailed records have been kept of said contact.

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – Not upheld.

[33] NZ Media Council Principle 11 states that editors should take care in photographic and image selection.Mr Churchman has complained that the inclusion of a photograph of Dr Bolton in the articles identifies him as a ‘supporter’ in what was termed the imagined ‘team’ and that the only name able to be publicly identified as associated with the allegations is his.The articles carried photographs of other people as well.Dr Bolton’s photograph was included as it related to the charges he had pleaded guilty to of twice naming the victim on a talkback show.

Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics – Not upheld.

The complaints are not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown,

Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tracy Watkins and Tim Watkin.