H.E.JENSEN AGAINST THE EVENING POST

Case Number: 599

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Evening Post

The New Zealand Press Council has dismissed a complaint by a Wellington Justice of the Peace, Mr H.E.Jensen, against an editorial in the Evening Post.

Published on 4 January, headed "Misgivings over wider JP powers" and described by Mr Jensen as "scathing," the leading article questioned the competence and capacity of justices at large to exercise a broader jurisdiction in courtrooms, as recently proposed.

In particular, one paragraph criticised the actions during proceedings in a Wellington court last year of two JPs - one of whom, although not named in the leader, had been Mr Jensen.

The complainant protested that such references had relied on second-hand misinformation, since the editor had not attended the proceedings cited. He denied that the JPs then presiding had, as asserted, "instructed" reporters present how to report the Bench's address to a witness.

Furthermore, submitted Mr Jensen, the caustic tones of the editorial were unacceptable and highly offensive. He sought a "balanced review" by the Council and publication of an "impartial overview," rather than an abridged letter to the editor by way of response.

In reply, the newspaper's editor stood by the editorial, confident that its opinions had constituted fair comment and that it had not wrongly misinterpreted the situation at the time.

She had, however, offered the complainant an opportunity to submit for publication an abridged version of his original letter of complaint, which would carry a footnote defending the leader.

Pressing for his concerns to be published in full, Mr Jensen appealed to the Press Council.

Upholding the editorial and dismissing the complaint, councillors detected no grounds for reproach in the general observations which the leader had made. They noted it voiced views shared by a significant elements of the legal profession.

As for the particular passage to which Mr Jensen had taken especial objection, facts were in dispute. Mr Jensen insisted he had done no more than politely ask reporters not to abridge his in-court conclusions; an extract from his diary, which he said he had read to the court at the time, showed as much.

Nevertheless, the Press Council found, the Evening Post's editorial contention that the justices of the peace had "instructed" that their decision was to be published "word perfect" had relied on daily newspaper reports at the time.

Such reports had not been challenged before the editorial appeared. Mr Jensen had had an opportunity to dispute them much earlier, but had not. His response to that consideration seemed now to suggest that it was an unwritten rule for JPs, like judges, to "stand aside from media comment." If such a precept held good, observed the council, it was not readily reconciled with a public complaint to the council itself.

Altogether, the editor had responded reasonably to Mr Jensen and might even be said to have gone out of her way to placate him.