ROSS BARBER AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD / STUFF

Case Number: 2851

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Court Reporting
Politicians
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Ross Barber has complained about a story published on Stuff on September 24, 2019 and in theManawatu Standard the next day. The Stuff headline reads Mayoral candidate suffering from clinical psychosis, delusion. The article was written by Jono Galuska, who has written several stories on Mr Mr Barber since 2014.

[2] The article was a report on a hearing in the Palmerston North District Court deciding whether Mr Barber was fit to stand trial for charges including threatening to kill and cultivating cannabis.

[3] It reports Mr Barber has multiple convictions for assaulting children and has lost control of some of his financial affairs. It quotes two expert witnesses – Dr David Chaplow and clinical psychologist Shelly Lomas. Both said on the stand that Mr Barber suffers from delusions. Dr Chaplow, who also diagnosed psychosis and possible schizophrenia, said the illness stems from medical problems in the 1990s and that Mr Barber believes himself to be the grandson of King George IV. During proceedings, the article reports, Mr Barber said he was God and King of the Jews.

The Complaint

[4] Mr Barber complained to the Standard on September 30 and then to the Council on October 9. He hasn’t specified under which principles he wishes to complain but is concerned that the story is “corrupt journalism” and affects his right to a fair trial. He also describes the article as “blasphemous” and “scandalous”. In essence his complaint comes down to issues of accuracy, fairness and privacy, so we will consider it under Principle 1, which says:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view...

And Principle 2, which says:

Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.
Publications should exercise particular care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not relevant to the matter reported.

Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

[5] Mr Barber says it is unfair to quote Dr Chaplow, saying jurors may come to a poor opinion of him [Mr Barber] and to run the story prior to the judge’s ruling. It undermined his rights in court and his chances in the election.

[6] He denies claims in the story that he is delusional and incapable of looking after his own financial affairs.

[7] The complainant denies pleading not guilty and says that his “major concern is the disregard and disrespect of the courts and legal process”. The reporter and newspaper are therefore lying and acting corruptly.

[8] In his final comment, Mr Barber insists “the court hearing was not open” and the reporter was making out he abuses children, when he never has. He continues that the Media Council is culpable for this corruption and will be cursed by God.

[9] He refers to stories published in 2014 and 2018, but as they are out of time they do not concern this complaint.

The Response

[10] The Manawatu Standard’s News Director Jimmy Ellingham replied to Mr Barber on October 2, standing by the story. Editor Matthew Dallas responded to the Council on October 18. Both make much the same points in defence of the reporter and article.

[11] The hearing was heard in open court and the judge imposed no suppressions, including details of Mr Barber’s previous convictions.

[12] The hearing was to determine if the complainant was fit to stand trial. Mr Barber was a mayoral candidate at the time and therefore there was a high public interest in reporting the case, so that voters could be fully informed about candidates before casting their votes.

[13] Mr Dallas continued, “if he wishes to seek election into positions of power and influence, and represent the people, he should accept it comes with journalistic scrutiny and considerable public interest”.

[14] While Mr Barber says he hadn’t entered a plea, Mr Dallas writes the court considered that amounted to a not guilty plea and it was appropriate to report it as such.

[15] Mr Dallas says Mr Barber’s past convictions are a matter of public record, as reported by theStandard. The parts of the article referring to Mr Barber’s mental state quote the testimony of expert witnesses and have been accurately reported, he says.

The Decision

[16] Mr Barber sent the Council a copy of a court order from 2018, which he claims Stuff has breached. Unfortunately for him, it shows quite the opposite. The order, which relates to an application by the same journalist for court documents relating to Mr Barber, weighs the complainant’s right to privacy with the public interest. While it says Mr Barber was “a vulnerable person” under the Family Court Act and denies access to the full file, the order allows the journalist to a redacted version of the documents. Leave is given to publish the contents of an August 2018 decision by Judge BR Pidwell. In that decision the Court ruled Mr Barber suffers from a mental illness and lacks competence to manage his own property affairs.

[17] In paragraph 24, Pidwell J writes: “In standing for public office, Ross [Mr Barber] has chosen to be open to public scrutiny and, therefore, the public has a right to know of any limitation on his ability to administer his own property which may limit his ability to adequately perform the role as regional councillor. This outweighs Ross’ right to privacy in this instance”.

[18] The Council can only echo the judge’s decision. Mr Barber is clearly suffering from a mental illness, but by standing for public office is opening himself to vital public scrutiny. Voters in each election in which he stands have the right to know of his convictions and mental state.

[19] Mr Barber’s past convictions are on the public record.

[20] The evidence as to his mental state comes from open court hearings and experts of the calibre of Dr Chaplow, a former director of the Mason Clinic and Director of Mental Health. It is quite proper for the paper to report them.

[21] While the Standard should always keep in mind the line in Principle 2 urging special consideration for those suffering from trauma, it is the paper’s duty to report on candidates for public office and ensure its readers are informed as to any issues that might impinge on their ability to serve. Reporting past convictions and mental health issues of this kind is undoubtedly in the public interest. The complainant should be under no illusion that the paper has every right, and indeed duty, to report these matters each and every time he stands. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.