VICKY SARIN AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 2763

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Court Reporting
Names Suppression Of
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

1. The complaint arises from a fatal accident that occurred near Palmerston North Airport on December 28, 2018, and subsequent Court proceedings.

2. The complainant is an Indian national who was visiting New Zealand with his mother and family.On leaving the airport in a sedan he noticed a railway crossing where the lights were not flashing.He slowed, and went through the crossing, but overlooked a stop sign almost immediately after the railway crossing.He drove through that stop sign, colliding with a four-wheel drive vehicle.The other vehicle had no opportunity to stop so effectively “T boning” the complainant’s vehicle. As a consequence his mother, in a rear passenger seat, died at the scene.His daughter and the driver of the other vehicle sustained injuries. He was charged with careless driving causing death.

3. He appeared in the Palmerston North District Court and pleaded guilty.The Judge was not prepared to deal with the matter without further information, and adjourned the sentencing until that further information could be made available the next day.He also made an interim order suppressing the complainant’s name.

4. This complaint has become somewhat confused, because lawyers acting on behalf of the complainant wrote to both Stuff and theManawatu Standard in slightly different terms.However, it is now clear that the complaint to the Media Council is being dealt with by Mr Sarin himself, and he alleges that both our principles of privacy and corrections have been breached.

The Complaint

5. In his complaint Mr Sarin said he was a foreign tourist and he sought name suppression so he could explain the incident to his family first-hand, and why he was pleading guilty to the charge of careless driving causing death.He said this was because of cultural nuances that meant careless driving would be interpreted in India differently from in New Zealand.

6. He said at the first instance the Judge granted interim name suppression.

7. He said the journalist in question came out of the courtroom after the first hearing and asked for his comments, to which he replied that he had requested name suppression which had been granted, and printing the story would be irrelevant.Notwithstanding that, he says the publication went on to publish the article, including his name and photo, within a couple of hours of the hearing, in violation of the Court orders.

The Response

8. The editor of the Manawatu Standard accepted there had been a breach of the interim suppression order, but stated that this was an oversight on the part of the reporter.He said the letters received from lawyers originally representing Mr Sarin sought to have the article and the follow-up sentencing remarks removed from Stuff or geo-blocked from being searchable in India as recompense for the breaching of the interim order.He did not think these options were appropriate, as in the finish they were accurate and legitimate coverage of Court proceedings.

9. He said the Judge made it clear that Mr Sarin would not have received permanent name suppression regardless of the breach of the interim order.He submitted that in essence the article breached the Court order for about 20 hours before it otherwise would have been published.

10. He considered there was no breach of privacy, and once the publication was aware of the interim breach it took appropriate steps by amending the online article, removing all reference to the complainant’s name, connection to the deceased, and his image.Stuff took steps to remove the article from the search engine, and it had not been shared on any of the Stuff orManawatu Standard social media accounts.The article was annotated in the internal database and a request was lodged with Press Reader, the host of digital editions of newspapers, for the article to be removed.This was later cancelled when the suppression order was lifted.

The Decision

11. While the publication states the interim suppression order was inadvertently overlooked, there is some strong evidence to the contrary. Not just from the complainant himself, but also from his brother, who is an executive with an IT company in Singapore. The effect of their evidence is to say they told the reporter outside a suppression order had been made.They say his reaction was he would publish anyway.

12. We also note the judge stated in his sentencing remarks :

“What I said in Court was this: “There will be an interim order until tomorrow. It may well be that through the electronic means, Mr Sarin can advise who he needs to advise”. The “Manawatu Standard” and the parent company Stuff, breached that suppression order, and plainly did so. The editor, through communication with the Court registry says the reporter (not the reporter in Court today) fell into error. But, you were photographed and named, contrary to the order I made, perhaps negating your ability to advise whoever you needed to advise back in India that there was a real risk that your name would be published as a result of today’s sentencing. I accept that you explained to the reporter outside Court that you had an order suppressing your name, but the reporter failed to recheck the position and published your name and your photograph.”

13. This is all strong evidence supporting the complainant’s version of events. However, as the Council has noted on previous occasions, it is not in a position to determine disputed facts where each side presents competing versions of what occurred.

14. However, the one certainty is the Court made an interim suppression order in the context of this hearing.It is the obligation of a reporter to ensure that they do not miss such orders made in Court, as the breach of Court orders is a very serious matter.It can lead to criminal charges in the case of suppression orders if a complaint is made to the police, but we note this did not occur here.However, failure to note an order of the Court, even inadvertently, is a very serious breach of the professional standards expected of reporters.

15. In this case we accept that the breach of privacy occasioned from the ignoring of the Court order was relatively brief.We also note that corrections were made promptly, which often brings into play the provisions of Principle 12. But in this case the privacy breach, by failing to give effect to the interim suppression order, as the judge stated above, deprived the complainant of the ability to advise family in India before the matter became public. In those circumstances we uphold the breach of the Privacy Principle notwithstanding the relatively quick correction.

16. The complaint was charged with Careless Driving Causing Death. This is at the lower end of seriousness which progresses through Dangerous Driving Causing Death to manslaughter.Council members also noted that the Judge’s Sentencing Notes were much more empathetic to the complainant and the consequences of his carelessness. Council members also noted that the first headline of 15 January was particularly insensitive and sensational.

17. The Council is also satisfied that the breach of a Court order, inadvertent or otherwise, does not accord with the ‘highest professional standards’, and those circumstances would also justify an uphold of this complaint.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.