MS Z AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 748

Council Meeting: June 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

A complaint to the New Zealand Press Council against the New Zealand Herald by an Auckland woman who was recently before the District Court on a charge of criminally harassing a former friend, has failed. Her name was permanently suppressed by the Court.

Ms Z’s complaint against the NZ Herald was twofold. First she claimed that the newspaper had breached an Auckland District Court Suppression order by publishing her sexuality, age and city in its court report published on 9 April 1999. The second complaint was that the newspaper reports published on 9 April and 13 April lacked fairness, accuracy and balance..

The Auckland District court report dealt with the first same sex case brought under the Harassment Act 1997. On 3 June Miss Z was convicted of the charge and sentenced to three months periodic detention.

The headline on 9 April report read ‘Rejected lesbian stalker court told’. The case involved allegations of one woman, Ms Z, stalking another woman. The court had granted name suppression for both women and the New Zealand Herald referred to the defendant as an Auckland lesbian, giving her age.

Ms Z complained that these particulars made her readily identifiable in her community of lesbians. However, even if the report had omitted the description ‘lesbian’ and substituted the word ‘woman’, the lesbian relationship would have still been obvious by the very nature of the case. Therefore the only grounds for complaint lie in the disclosure of her age. The Press Council held that, even combined with the description lesbian, there was insufficient information to lead to identification of Ms Z.

In her second complaint she claimed that the stories placed unnecessary emphasis on her sexual preference. However, by the very nature of the case her sexual orientation was evident.

The report of the court proceedings described the evidence of the former friend as feeling threatened by a hate letter from Ms Z which, according to Ms Z, was in fact a piece of writing which was poetic lesbian erotica and was a love letter more than a hate letter.

When reporting the threatened woman’s evidence of the contents of this letter in court, the paper attributed to her the words ‘almost a rape threat’ and ‘I want to cut you and leave you to bleed’. Ms Z’s complaint is that these were not the words in her letter to her former friend and consequently the report was ‘harmfully inaccurate and used distorting and wrong emphasis on a key issue of the case’. She did not dispute the fact that these words were said by her former friend in court.

The Council did not accept that the New Zealand Herald reporter had erred by recording the former friend’s inaccurate recall or paraphrasing of the letter in question. The appropriate arena for disputing the quoted contents of the letter should have been the court.

Neither complaint was upheld.