R HOPE AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESA complaint against the coverage by the Waikato Times of assault charges against a Hamilton teacher has been rejected by the New Zealand Press Council.
On 17 February this year Ross Hope and three others complained to the Council about the newspaper’s coverage of the arrest and initial court appearance of John Edgar on charges of indecently assaulting seven students at Hukanui Primary School.
Dr Edgar was arrested on 12 November last year and appeared in court the next day charged with indecently assaulting an 11-year-old boy. On that occasion his name and the name of the school where he taught were suppressed. Notwithstanding that, the Waikato Times took a photograph of him as he left court. Its first report, however, contained just bare details of the case and made no reference to Dr Edgar or Hukanui School.
The following week Dr Edgar appeared in court again, this time on seven charges of indecent assault. Name suppression for both him and Hukanui School was lifted. The next day the Waikato Times carried a front page report on the allegations plus a photograph of Dr Edgar which had been taken after his previous week’s court appearance. It was this story which became the subject of the complaint.
Mr Hope and the other complainants, complained that the article and photograph were completely out of proportion to the alleged offences. They claimed the reportage was one-sided, assumed Dr Edgar was guilty and seriously jeopardised his right to a fair trial. They also complained about the way the photograph had been taken the previous week, saying the photographer had been standing in bushes when he took the photograph and had assured Dr Edgar it would not be used. It was also an unflattering
photograph given it was taken after the only night Dr Edgar has spent in jail. He had been unable to shave or iron his shirt.
In response the Waikato Times editor maintained the newspaper had acted correctly. The story was of high public interest and the photograph had been taken in a public place. The editor pointed out that while the story contained comment from the Hukanui School Board of Trustees about what the board was doing to deal with the allegations, it also included comments from a parent who expressed her complete confidence in the school and the teachers.
The complainants replied that the article had been so damaging that a defence lawyer said he would request a change of venue for the trial if the unbalanced reportage continued.
The editor said the lawyer had made his comments during a court hearing to consider a Waikato Times request for evidence handed up during a depositions hearing in December to be made available. She noted lawyers often resorted to extravagant language and that the newspaper had received no complaint or warning from the court about its coverage.
Subsequent to the complaint being laid Dr Edgar was found not guilty on all charges of indecent assault. That verdict has no influence on the Council’s decision, but it does indicate the Waikato Times coverage apparently did not jeopardise his trial. Despite the concerns raised by Mr Hope and others, the coverage of Dr Edgar’s arrest and subsequent court appearances was not exceptional. An allegation of indecent assault against a local teacher is news. It is hardly surprising that it received front page coverage nor that a photograph was used. There was nothing in the story to imply Dr Edgar was guilty. The paper was careful to refer to allegations of indecent assault.
The newspaper’s coverage of Dr Edgar’s acquittal was equally substantial. The Council finds the Waikato Times acted professionally and fairly in its treatment of what was a sensitive and difficult case for all concerned. The complaint is not upheld.