SHERALEE WEBSTER AGAINST HOKITIKA GUARDIAN AND GREYMOUTH STARIntroduction
Sheralee Webster has complained about a court report that appeared in both the Hokitika Guardian and Greymouth Star, saying it led to her being branded a thief. The Press Council upholds her complaint on the grounds of fairness.
On January 20, 2011 both newspapers reported the court appearance and sentencing of a woman who pleaded guilty to assaulting Ms Webster. The same report appeared word for word in both newspapers, and with similar headlines.
The court was told that the assailant was angry because the victim, Ms Webster, had stolen from the assailant’s friend. The report noted that the court also heard that grief had played a part in the attack because the assailant’s flatmate had died in the Pike River mine.
These claims were not challenged by the police prosecutor and duly reported by the newspapers’ court reporter. The Greymouth Star headline read: ‘Pike grief claim in assault’. The Hokitika Guardian headline was: ‘Pike grief cited in assault case’.
Ms Webster initially challenged the accuracy of the reports on a number of issues, but, more particularly, over what was said in court about the reasons for the assault. She said she had been attacked because the assailant thought she was involved in a relationship with the assailant’s boyfriend, not because of any theft or so-called ‘history’ between the two women.
However, on seeing the court transcripts, she saw that the newspaper reports had reflected what had been claimed in court.
Even though she was not named in the newspaper reports, she said people in Hokitika were able to identify her as the victim of the assault and, therefore, the apparent thief. They also knew the theft referred to the property of a miner who died at Pike River.
She said the resulting publicity had made life impossible for her in Hokitika because many people believed what they read in the local paper. After the court hearing she had lived behind closed curtains and didn’t want to be seen in the town. She said as the victim, she had been ‘revictimised’ by the newspaper reports and did not feel safe.
She had asked for retractions and apologies in both newspapers, but editor Paul Madgwick stood behind his court reporter and the accuracy of the report and would not publish a retraction.
The Editor’s Response
Mr Madgwick said Ms Webster had not put her complaint in writing to the newspaper but had phoned him demanding a retraction.
He said the newspaper’s court reporter had 24 years’ experience and he was satisfied that she had reported only what was conveyed in court.
Ms Webster’s account of events varies from what was said in court, but he said that was an issue for her and police to sort out. “The court report can only, and must, be sourced solely on what is said in the courtroom.”
The Press Council has seen the court transcript and accepts, as does Ms Webster, that the newspapers’ report accurately reflected what was said in court. So Ms Webster has no grounds for complaint about accuracy against the newspapers, nor grounds for asking for a correction or retraction.
Editor Paul Madgwick is correct in saying that the newspaper must rely solely on what is said in court. But does the newspapers’ responsibility end there?
The Council finds that Ms Webster does have cause to complain about her subsequent treatment by the Hokitika Guardian/Greymouth Star.
Although the newspaper reports did not identify Ms Webster by name, the Council accepts her account that in a small community she was readily identifiable and the theft from a friend referred to in court was known to be a theft from a miner who perished at Pike River.
This was a highly charged situation contributed to by the newspapers’ report, however accurate.
It comes down to an issue of fairness. It is also a fact that another woman had been arrested for the theft and was awaiting a court appearance. That was information available to the newspaper and it could have been useful in a subsequent follow-up story about the impact on Ms Webster.
Given the particular circumstances of this case they had an obligation to correct the record once they were aware that someone else had been charged.
The Press Council upholds the complaint on the grounds of fairness.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.