Case Number: 2661

Council Meeting: MAY 2018

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: NewsRoom

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage


Keith Hunter complained that article on the 1998 trial of Scott Watson for the murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope breached the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.


Ben Smart and Olivia Hope disappeared and were presumed murdered after a New Year’s Eve party at Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds in the early hours of January 1, 1998.After a lengthy inquiry and subsequent trial Scott Watson was found guilty of their murder.

In January 2018 NewsRoom marked the 20th anniversary of their disappearance by running an article by former TV3 journalist Andi Brotherston, who covered the three month trial.

In the article, which was also run by Stuff, she recounted elements of the case which she believed were pivotal in persuading the jury that Watson was guilty.

She wrote that campaigners continued to chip away at the public’s confidence in the police investigation by selectively re-litigating the case. Some key evidence had been cited out of context so often it had become misleading, while other evidence that undoubtedly influenced the jury had long been forgotten.

Key points included:

*The ongoing debate about whether the ketch, that water taxi driver Guy Wallace said he dropped Ben, Olivia and the mystery man off at, ever existed.

*The significance of Watson repainting his sloop in the following days.

*The discovery of two long blonde hairs on a blanket found on Watson’s yacht and a dismissal of the suggestion they might have got there as a result of forensic incompetence.

*Watson’s lies to police about what he was wearing on New Year’s Eve, failure to produce those clothes to the police, his manner in intercepted phone calls to his former girlfriend and his lack of denial – he never once said “I didn’t do it.”

The article concluded Watson was found guilty for one very good reason – because he was guilty.

The Complaint

Keith Hunter complained that one of Brotherston’s principal errors of fact was that no-one saw or gave testimony to seeing the mystery ketch in the case.

He said five witnesses gave evidence of seeing a yacht corresponding to that described by water taxi driver Guy Wallace at Furneaux that night.

He also challenged the comment that Watson lied to the police about what he had been wearing that night.

He asked NewsRoom and Stuff to “retract Brotherston and publish the truth, with an apology to Scott Watson.” He also asked they publish a 2000 word article rebutting Brotherston’s article.

“My concern overall is that Watson was ill-treated by the press in 1998 after a six month long ruse deliberately practised against him by then Detective Inspector Pope.”

Mr Hunter says Pope arranged a six month trial by media before charging Watson and this deprived him of any possibility of a fair trial and “It’s happening again.” This article was police propaganda and Stuff’s reprint of the article went “an evil step further” by omitting a final sentence in the NewsRoom article that Brotherston was communications manager in Auckland for the police between 2002 and 2004.

The Response

Mark Jennings, co-editor of NewsRoom said he did not think it worth going through the complaint point by point as this was an opinion piece and not a news story.

Andi Brotherston was commenting on what was, in her view, the compelling evidence and major factors that appeared to convince the jury of Watson’s guilt.

“We live in a society where people can express their reasonably held opinions. In terms of editorial judgement, I feel we were justified in running her opinion.”

As for Andi Brotherston’s previous role in media communications for the police, that was a long time ago and “we had no reason to believe that she has any on-going contact with police or the officers involved in the Watson case.”

The fact the disclosure was not run on Stuff was entirely his fault. It was added to theNewsRoom piece a short time after publication but Stuff were not notified.

Any suggestion that NewsRoom was conspiring with the police was absurd.

Mr Jennings declined a request to publish a lengthy article or rebuttal written by Mr Hunter, sayingNewsRoom did not intend to publish anything more on this subject at this point. “The claim and counter claim would never end I suspect.”

Stuff editor in chief Patrick Crewdson also declined publication.

“Debate over Scott Watson’s case is a long-running, ongoing issue, and I don’t consider that the publication of Ms Brotherston’s column means every argument or disputed fact has to be explored again.

The Discussion

Media Council Principles 4 and 5 set out the relevant requirement for an article of this sort. It requires a clear distinction be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such and material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

The article was clearly marked as comment and opinion. It also set out the writer’s credentials by stating that she had covered the story from start to finish, including the trial.

As for the questions of fact raised by Mr Hunter we will deal first with the mystery yacht. The article said that while there were ketch sightings from New Year’s Day onwards there were no sightings of it on New Year’s Eve. It was not in any of the thousands of photos police collected from the 1500 people at Furneaux Lodge that night. Several reported seeing a similar boat – a ketch rigged scow which was ruled out early in the investigation.

Brotherston wrote water taxi driver Guy Wallace was the only person who saw the ketch before Ben and Olivia disappeared and the sketch he made for the police on January 3 indicated he wasn’t sure if it was a ketch or sloop.

Mr Hunter said five other witnesses testified they saw a yacht corresponding to the description by Wallace at Furneaux that night.

The facts on this point have always been contested. The Crown argued there was no mystery ketch, while Watson’s defence made this a major issue. Ultimately it became a matter for the jury to decide and the writer chose the set of facts and arguments that swayed them.

On the other major question of fact complained of Mr Hunter said it was wrong to claim Watson lied to police about what he was wearing on New Year’s Eve and later photos emerged of him in totally different clothing than he’d described to the police.

Mr Jennings did not respond to this point.His main defence was that this article was an opinion piece and not a news story. The Media Council accepts that point and is satisfied that the article was founded on fact.

Mr Hunter went too far in claiming the article was misinformation, the work of a police propagandist and thatNewsRoom and Stuff were publishing false information in the interests of the police.Although the writer worked as communication manager for the police from 2002-04, there is nothing to suggest this article was anything other than honestly held opinion.

As for the arguments relating to fairness and balance, this was an opinion piece and it would have been odd to require the writer to also present the alternative view that Watson was innocent. Nor were the publications bound to publish a rebuttal.Articles about different aspects of this case have been running for many years and will no doubt continue to do so.

The complaint it not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin,

Tracy Watkins stood down to maintain a public member majority.


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