JAY REID AGAINST DANNEVIRKE NEWSMr Reid complains of biased coverage by the Dannevirke News in a series of articles. At the relevant time, he was in dispute with the Tararua District Council. The complaint is not upheld.
The first article appeared on 25 June 2005 under the heading “Litigious Man Wages Crusade”. Its first paragraph read:
“Each time he goes to Court, James Robert Reid who says he has half completed a law degree, conducts his own case so his costs are minimal. However his respondents, who have included the New Zealand Fire Service and Tararua District Council, have to hire lawyers and bear the resulting costs”.
Mr Reid was suing the Council over the sale of land neighbouring his own property. The cost to the Tararua Distinct Council for successfully defending this action was nearly $100,000 which equated approximately to 1% of the total rate revenue of the Council. The article referred to numerous other Court actions taken by Mr Reid against the Attorney-General, Minister of Labour, the Governor-General and the Minister of Justice (jointly) and the New Zealand Fire Service (more than 20).
At one stage the Attorney-General had applied to the High Court to have Mr Reid declared a vexatious litigant but that matter had not been resolved at the date of publication.
The article referred in part to the history of some of Mr Reid’s court proceedings which had resulted in awards of costs against him. These proceedings included the Fire Service proceedings (an employment matter) as a result of which Mr Reid was reinstated by the Employment Court. The dispute with the Tararua District Council over the sale of a block of land involved several steps through the Court system including an application that the High Court Master in Wellington disqualify himself from hearing the matter. The Master declined to do this. Afterwards Mr Reid sought interlocutory relief and endeavored to have the Mayor of the Tararua District Council held in contempt of court. Judicial review proceedings against the Tararua District Council ultimately failed and in November 2004 the Council was awarded costs of $29,010 against Mr Reid. The Council’s actual costs were near $100,000. At the time of the first article Mr Reid had not paid these costs and the Council had instituted bankruptcy proceedings against him to recover the amount.
An appeal to the Court of Appeal against the cost ruling was dismissed and further costs of $1,500 were awarded against him. Notwithstanding that he lost the High Court judicial review proceeding, it was noted that Mr Reid still claimed that the Council had acted wrongly over the land and that this was confirmed by the High Court decision. It was noted that he had recently brought a petition to have the Woodville area removed from the Tararua District Council and made part of the Palmerston North City Council.
A second article under the heading “Reid Pays to Avoid Bankruptcy” was published on 27 July 2005. It noted that Mr Reid had paid $35,116 into the Court to cover the High Court costs award against him plus interest. This was after a Judge in the Wellington High Court had given Mr Reid until 10am the following day to pay this amount. The article further noted that Mr Reid had not paid the costs award by the Court of Appeal nor had he paid approximately $19,000 awarded to Land Information New Zealand at the judicial review hearing. It was reported that Mr Reid noted that the money awarded to Land Information New Zealand existed as a debt against him and that he had no plans to pay the Court of Appeal costs and "joked that he might make them go through the same process again to collect those from him”. It was also noted that Mr Reid “still had a few choice words for Tararua District Council and his opinion of their activities as well as a damning indictment of what he called ‘the judicial dictatorship’ of the New Zealand Court system”.
Mr Reid’s complaint is that while a newspaper is entitled to publish background research into individuals in dispute with a local council, news items should also include research into the basis of the dispute. Thus when referring to the dispute over the sale of land the reporter should have sought answers from the Council as to why the Deputy Mayor was awarded sole agency for the sale of the land and obtained a commission in doing so, why the Chief Executive of the Council did not advise that he was considering an offer from the Deputy Mayor’s client, and why the purchaser and price were not made known when the Council was considering whether or not to sell the land and voting on the sale and purchase agreement. Mr Reid in his complaint also alleged that the paper should have inquired why the Council paid nearly $100,000 to a top national law firm to defend litigation when local barristers were available. He stated “it is common practice for corrupt organisations to buy influence with the judiciary by hiring expensive law firms”. Mr Reid also raised peripheral issues which will be referred to later in this decision.
The Editor of the newspaper dealt with each of the allegations made by Mr Reid in his reply to the complaint. Some of the matters, including those relating to the commission received by the Deputy Mayor, the procedure by which the Council had approved the sale and the fact that there had been a breach of the Council’s statutory obligations had been issues in the High Court proceeding and the Judge had found against Mr Reid. In respect of these matters, the Dannevirke News saw no point in covering claims of Mr Reid which had been determined against him by the Judge. Other issues such as the complaint about not using local barristers had not been raised with the newspaper but if they had would not have been reported because this was quite a common practice. The newspaper did not report Mr Reid’s allegation that the Council had fast-tracked its procedure to beat a pending change in the law as Mr Reid had conceded to the reporter that this was pure speculation on his part and that he had no evidence of it although he said it was indicated by the circumstances.
As noted previously the complaint is not upheld. In this Council’s view the Dannevirke News did not breach the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance (Principle one of its Statement of Principles). It did not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.
Many of Mr Reid’s complaints effectively seek to re-litigate a matter which has been determined by a judicial review proceeding in the High Court. Mr Reid had an interest in the land in question because the information indicates he was a potential purchaser. He failed in his judicial review proceeding and effectively seeks to re-litigate the matter in another forum. In the circumstances, there is no obligation on the newspaper to allow him to do this.
Mr Reid does not dispute that the thrust of the two articles are correct when they refer to his propensity to become a litigant. The articles are about Mr Reid and his litigious nature. The accuracy, fairness and balance of those comments are not challenged.
The progress and the cost of the judicial review proceeding were essential elements of the article. The nature of the proceeding was stated, as was the result. Mr Reid lost his case. The Council sees no obligation on any newspaper to then conduct an enquiry as to the underlying facts to support what is, in effect, a contention that the Judge got it wrong. The merits or otherwise of the decision were not essential parts of the article. The newspaper was perfectly entitled to accept the judgment at face value. There is no obligation on the grounds of accuracy, fairness and balance to go into the underlying merits of a dispute when that is not the thrust of the article.
In giving accuracy, fairness and balance to the essence of the article, it was not necessary for the Dannevirke News to mention some of the peripheral matters raised by Mr Reid, namely the employment of outside legal advisers and the unsupported allegation that the Council had accelerated the process to avoid a pending law change.
A further complaint made by Mr Reid related to the reporter who in a submission organised by a Council employee to the Local Government Commission on the petition initiated by Reid stated:
"The very concept is a result of a fermented brain trying to produce a non-toxic outcome."
Mr Reid alleged that this showed bias by the reporter to him. When responding to this complaint, the editor of the Dannevirke News noted that the reporter’s comment was made in a private capacity and indicative of the frustration experienced by Tararua residents over what they saw as Mr Reid’s pointless and costly actions. The editor accepted that although the comments were not used in any “news” context, they might be considered injudicious coming from a reporter from the local newspaper. This Council agrees with the editor that in the circumstances of the report it was injudicious and his comment did show partiality when signing the petition. This in itself however did not in this case lead to a breach of the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance in the newspaper articles.