MARC SPRING AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2871

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Marc Spring complains about a section of an article headed Access denied: Thousands brave NZ courts without a lawyer due to cost, published by theNew Zealand Herald on November 4, 2019. He considers the article breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance), 4 (comment and fact), 9 (subterfuge) and 10 (conflicts of interest) of the Media Council principles.

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. The article in question was about the cost of legal representation in civil cases and the consequent increase in self-represented litigants. The section of concern to Mr Spring was headedSelf-representation: Like fronting school assembly, but with more paperwork and featured a Matt Blomfield who was reported as self-representing in a number of cases. The article described the work done by Mr Blomfield, with particular reference to his successful defamation case against Cameron Slater and the Whale Oil blog.

The Complaint

4. Mr Spring complains in general that the New Zealand Herald has a personal vendetta against Mr Slater and an inherent bias when reporting on Mr Blomfield. He complains specifically about the report that Mr Blomfield’s total costs were nearly $1 million and about the paragraph of the article that reads “Blomfield only had a lawyer for the end of the case against Slater, but was mostly on his own up till then, as he was with other successful action.”

5. Mr Spring provides his own estimate of the costs incurred by Mr Blomfield and also details of lawyers assisting him before the final stages of the litigation. He includes part of an affidavit sworn by Mr Blomfield and mentioning the involvement of four lawyers at various stages of the litigation. In his correspondence with Mr Laxon Mr Spring also set out at some length the steps he believed theNew Zealand Herald should have taken to verify the amount spent by Mr Blomfield on legal costs.

6. Mr Spring also complains about a statement in the New Zealand Herald response to his complaint, to the effect that there is a restraining order in place prohibiting him from contacting or harassing Mr Blomfield. He says there was an order some years ago but it lapsed, probably in April or May 2016, and has not been renewed.

7. In a final response to the New Zealand Herald response to this complaint, Mr Spring writes at some length about Mr Laxon’s statement about the restraining order and also comments on earlierNew Zealand Herald articles about Mr Blomfield and his activities.


The Response

8. Andrew Laxon, NZME Planning Editor, responded to Mr Spring’s complaint.He noted that “a restraining order prohibits you from contacting or harassing Mr Blomfield.” He also said that a further signed statement about his use of lawyers had been obtained from Mr Blomfield. This statement mentions three specific lawyers and describes their involvement in the litigation. On the basis of the statement, Mr Laxon concluded that “this makes clear that Mr Blomfield was self-represented for the vast majority of the Slater case and engaged a lawyer (Mr Geiringer) to do substantial work towards the end of the case”.

9. There was further correspondence between Mr Spring and Mr Laxon, but it focussed mainly on Mr Laxon’s refusal to give Mr Spring a copy of the statement proved by Mr Blomfield and on the question of the restraining order, neither of which is directly relevant to the complaint before the Media Council.

The Decision

10. To deal with some preliminary matters first.

  • The Media Council’s scope applies to published material. It does not extend to correspondence between a complainant and the representative of a publication. It cannot, therefore, consider the complaint about Mr Laxon’s statement about the restraining order. It simply notes that Mr Laxon accepts that the statement in his response was inaccurate.
  • Principle 9 (subterfuge) relates to obtaining information or news by dishonest means. While Mr Spring certainly contests the content of the article in question, there is no suggestion that the information in it was dishonestly obtained.
  • Principle 10 (conflicts of interest) provides that publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. It applies, for example, to sponsorship, gifts and financial inducements. Mr Spring has mentioned Principle 10 in his formal complaint, but he has not alleged any lack of independence, nor has he identified any obligation that could have affected the reporting. Rather his complaint seems to be one of bias, to be considered under Principle 1.
  • In his final comment on this complaint, Mr Spring questions the New Zealand Herald’s reporting in earlier articles on Mr Blomfield’s activities. However the latest article he cites is dated August 9, 2019, well beyond the time limit for bringing a complaint to the Media Council.

11. The main issue in the complaint is the accuracy of the statements about Mr Blomfield’s costs and about his use of legal assistance. Mr Spring is of the view that Mr Blomfield’s legal costs could not have totalled more than about $110,000. However it is clear that the figure mentioned in the article was not a precise costing and was not limited to legal costs nor to the defamation case. The paragraph in question reads “Blomfield won, but only after huge effort – he produced about 36,000 pages of documents relating to the defamation case alone and the total cost neared $1m.” The obvious implication is that the cost figure included the cost of cases other than the defamation case and also included, for example, court fees, disbursements for services such as photocopying, assistance other than legal assistance and quite possibly the cost of Mr Blomfield’s own time.

12. Both Mr Spring and the New Zealand Herald have provided information about Mr Blomfield’s legal assistance. It seems reasonably clear that Mr Blomfield had very limited formal legal representation and rather more general advice and assistance from legally qualified persons.The contested statement in the article reads “Blomfield only had a lawyer for the end of the case against Slater, but was mostly on his own up until then, as he was with other successful action.”The article is short and general in tone and focusses mainly on the difficulty of self-representation. It is not an in-depth study of Mr Blomfield’s litigation or of his costs. In this context, the Media Council is satisfied that there is no inaccuracy. The information shows that Mr Blomfield may have had some legal representation in the early stages of the litigation, but was substantially unrepresented until a late stage. Equally, he had some advice and assistance from legally qualified persons but was indeed mostly on his own.

13. As to the question of bias, while Mr Spring asserts that the New Zealand Herald has an inherent bias in its reporting of matters concerning Mr Blomfield, he has not provided any examples to substantiate his assertion.

14. Similarly, while Mr Spring complains of a breach of Principle 4 (comment and fact), the Media Council is unable to identify any comment in the article. It appears to be straightforward report of an interview with Mr Blomfield with no additional comment.

Determination

15. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Christina Tay.

Hon Raynor Asher and Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.