TOM AND TERESA LEWIS AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMESIntroduction
Tom and Teresa Lewis have complained about an article in the magazine section of the Otago Daily Times (ODT) for the weekend of the 19th and 20th of May 2007. Mr Lewis was in the 1980s a detective sergeant in the New Zealand Police stationed at Dunedin. The basis of the complaint is that the article was inaccurate. Mr and Mrs Lewis sought a written retraction from the ODT in relation to alleged factual errors and a public apology acknowledging those errors.
The complaint is not upheld.
The article appeared under the heading “Shadows of the Past haunt Police”. The stand first read:
“The recent claims about police ‘corruption’ in Dunedin are not new. Deputy Editor Bryan James looks behind the headlines and the shadows to reveal inadequate and incompetent investigations and to self-protective police culture.”
Almost the entire article, which was a lengthy one, was devoted to what has become known as the “sex ring” case in Dunedin in the middle 1980s. That portion of the article was introduced by the following paragraph:
“The most notorious public scandal involving the Dunedin police occurred in 1984 and 1985, when one officer accused his superior of attempting to pervert the course of justice by failing to pursue possible charges against the father of a third. This was the so-called “sex-ring” case, and it received columns of publicity at the time.”
The article referred to the basis of the complaint, namely that teenage girls were being approached by various means and offered large sums of money to provide sexual services. It refers to Detective Sergeant Lewis being given the file and deciding on an undercover “entrapment” operation. The chief suspect was the owner of a Dunedin hotel and the father of another detective.
The article refers to a police woman acting as an undercover agent meeting the proposed recruiter. As a result of this operation Detective Sergeant Lewis believed he had sufficient information to charge both the hotel owner and the woman who was being used for recruiting services. The head of the Dunedin CIB was not prepared to allow charges to be laid until there were further investigations. The article refers to the conflict between Detective Sergeant Lewis and the head of the CIB over the case and that subsequently Detective Sergeant Lewis lodged a formal complaint against his superior officer alleging an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
The article notes that it was seven months after the complaint was lodged before the Commissioner of Police was formally made aware of the accusations. A police three-man inquiry team was established to which the Commissioner of Police added a Wellington barrister. Members of the Police Association in Dunedin were reported as being in doubt about the inquiry and claimed it would be a “white wash”.
The inquiry team determined that Detective Sergeant Lewis had not been stopped from investigating the “sex ring” and that there was insufficient evidence for charges to be laid. The piece reported that the report of the inquiry team was nevertheless damning on the Dunedin police hierarchy. The writer was also critical of many other unsatisfactory features of the police’s handling of the matter.
The piece notes that Detective Sergeant Lewis “negotiated what he later described as ‘a generous disengagement package’ and resigned after 20 years in the force. He moved to Australia and took up a new career in the security business.” The article also states that a later review “privately commissioned by Tom Lewis’s wife and carried out by an experienced retired police officer, eventually alleged police had indeed been involved in a cover up”.
The letter of complaint to the ODT made serious allegations about the standard of investigation and reporting by the ODT of the events in the 1980s. It was suggested that deficiencies in reporting at that time influenced deficiencies in the article under review.
Mr and Mrs Lewis make a general complaint of inaccuracies but concentrate on what they describe as “the more serious and blatant untruths” and say:
Detective Sergeant Lewis did not on his own volition decide on the undercover operation. This was agreed to and planned after a meeting of senior CIB officers.
The hotel owner had in fact made admissions when interviewed regarding his involvement in the attempted recruitment of minors for his sex show. The article suggested to the contrary.
The statement regarding the intended transfer of Detective Sergeant Lewis and his generous disengagement package and his movement to a career in the security business in Australia, is also incorrect.
The inquiry by the experienced retired police officer alleging that the police had been involved in a cover up was not commissioned by Mrs Lewis but by John Kennedy, the then editor of the New Zealand Tablet.
The Newspaper’s Response
The ODT’s position is that the article was a summary of many articles and reports published by the ODT in the mid-1980s. It did not purport to be an attempt to cover each and every aspect of the “sex ring”. The purpose of the article was to indicate to readers that allegations made in 2007 against the police in various centres in the 1980s did not exclude Dunedin and that the “sex ring” case was the best known example.
The ODT’s response to the four particular factual allegations was:
The report did not say that Detective Sergeant Lewis on his own volition decided on the undercover operation, although it accepts that this implication can be taken from the article. It notes that he was the head of the inquiry team.
In respect of the allegations that the hotel proprietor did make admissions when interviewed, the ODT accepts that he may have done so but if so this is not a matter of public record. It notes that Mr Lewis in his book “Cover Ups and Cop Outs” claims that there were admissions made. On a related point where Mr and Mrs Lewis claim that the ODT’s statement that the case against the hotel proprietor was weak, is incorrect, it noted that the independent inquiry concluded that there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.
In respect of the allegation that Mr Lewis worked in security, the ODT noted that it had been given this information by a former colleague. In respect of the other allegation as to the disengagement package, the ODT says it relied upon statements made by the Police Commissioner at the time and not subsequently challenged.
The information about the initiation of the private inquiry came from an NZPA report in 1985.
In summary, the ODT’s position is that much of the information in the article was provided by the police upon inquiry and the newspaper was in no position to assume the information was false, misleading or incomplete.
As has been said in several adjudications, this Council is usually in no position to determine disputed facts. This is particularly so if the facts have caused much controversy and have not been resolved by the Courts. Whether there was a police cover up or police corruption is not an issue upon which this Council can make a finding.
The Council does not uphold the first complaint. It accepts that the article suggests that Detective Sergeant Lewis made the decision to proceed with the undercover arrangement and that it may have actually been a collective decision of police officers. However, Mr Lewis in his own book “Cover Ups and Cop Outs” at page 189 states “I decided on an undercover operation to identify and prosecute the persons behind the sex ring.” There is nothing in this point.
Whether or not the hotel proprietor made admissions cannot be resolved by the Council. However, the ODT made the statement “he had made no admissions …” While there may not be a public record of any admissions, there had been allegations particularly by Mr Lewis in his book that admissions had been made. The Council is of the view that the ODT incorrectly stated as a fact what is a contentious matter.
The statement that Mr Lewis received what he considered to be “a generous disengagement package” is confirmed by Mr Lewis in his own book when at page 239 he said he was offered such a package. He accepted that package. The ODT erred when it said he moved to Australia and took up a new career in the security business. This was obviously incorrect.
The ODT may have also been incorrect when it followed an NZPA report which suggested that the report prepared by a retired senior sergeant had been initiated by Mrs Lewis. The Council however sees this as an immaterial factor in the article.
As noted, the Dunedin sex ring was a highly controversial incident which was used by the ODT in its article. The stand first indicates that the purpose of the article was “to reveal inadequate and incompetent investigations and a self-protective police culture”. There are the factual errors referred to above but the Council sees them as basically immaterial to the thrust of the article.
An overview of the article leads to the conclusion that in the main the article was supportive of Tom Lewis’ position at the time. Any suggestions of a self-protective police culture did not target Mr Lewis.
Mr and Mrs Lewis are critical of the ODT’s coverage in the 1980s. Whether they are correct is not an element of the complaint and the Council cannot comment on that allegation.
The minor factual errors in the article are not sufficient for the Council to uphold the complaint. They do not make the theme of the piece inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced. The complaint is therefore not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.