X AGAINST ASHBURTON GUARDIANIntroduction
X complained by letter dated 15 May 2006 about three articles published in the Ashburton Guardian on 14, 15 and 16 February 2006 respectively. Each article reported on a criminal trial then taking place in Timaru where the accused was charged with sexual violation of a fourteen year old complainant.
X’s complaint was supported by a volunteer from Victim Support Services who had supported the young person during the trial including while the young person was giving evidence
X’s complaint was a third party complaint so the Council obtained the consent of the complainant in the criminal trial (as the person most directly affected by the newspaper reports) before it proceeded to consider X’s complaint.
The complaint is not upheld.
Background to the complaint
The Council records that X had complained directly to the editor of the Ashburton Guardian in late 2005 about its reporting of an earlier stage of the Court process. The editor met with X and, following their discussions, he made certain decisions about how reporting of the coming trial would be managed. These decisions are set out later in this adjudication.
Grounds of complaint
X complained by letter dated 15 May 2006 that the reporting of the trial was “excessive and sensationalised”. X also contended that the reports made it possible (especially in a small town) for readers to identify the complainant. X claimed this caused the young person additional harm over and above that already experienced by participation in the trial process. X asserted that the newspaper reports had seriously compromised the young person’s welfare.
The newspaper’s reply
The newspaper advised that it did not have any record of receiving the initial letter of complaint. The editor became aware of the complaint only upon receiving a follow up letter from X. He then promptly replied explaining the reason for his earlier lack of response and undertaking to respond to the complaint as soon as possible. The editor also set out the complaint procedures available through the Press Council and provided the contact details for the Council.
He replied to the substantive complaint by letter dated 6 July 2006. The editor did not accept X’s allegation that the newspaper’s coverage had been excessive or sensationalised. He noted that the trial concerned some of the most serious offending alleged to have occurred in Ashburton for many years. Further, because of wide public concern about alcohol and drug use by young people and the potential consequences of that, the editor considered that the trial (which involved these components) was a matter of public interest.
He considered the newspaper’s reports were fair and balanced reporting of the trial. The editor rejected the claim that the newspaper coverage contributed in any way to the identity of the young person complainant becoming widely known.
The editor acknowledged there were competing interests which needed to be accorded fair and balanced reporting in a criminal trial. The role of the reporter was to act as a neutral observer. Frequently reports will not please trial participants.
The editor explained that as a result of the earlier discussions he had had with X, he had determined that the coverage of the trial would not be run on the front page nor be highlighted by any other promotional means until the trial had concluded.
An experienced reporter was engaged to report on the trial and the editor personally reviewed and edited the reports prior to publication. He took particular care to ensure that locations or street names were kept to a minimum so that any risk of inadvertently identifying the complainant was reduced. He acknowledged that some readers would have known who the complainant was, but he maintained that the newspaper was not in any way responsible for contributing to that.
When the trial concluded with a hung jury, the editor maintained that it was incumbent on the newspaper to report that outcome. This was done by way of a small three paragraph single column on the front page of the newspaper with a reference to the article which was published on an inner page of the newspaper.
The Council has considered carefully the reports complained about. Principle 5 of the Statement of Principles requires that “[e]ditors should have particular care and consideration for reporting on and about ….young people”. This principle applies to all reporting.
The reports of the court case are detailed and extensive. In the main, the reports are of the evidence being given at the trial, the closing addresses of each counsel and the Judge’s summing up. They report both the prosecution and defence cases. The character of the evidence is such that it could be considered by some readers as sensational. The Council has concluded that this is not, with respect, the fault of the newspaper.
The Council is also satisfied that the newspaper has met the threshold so as not to offend against Principle 5. Necessarily, there has had to be a weighing of respective interests. There is a balanced reporting both of the examination in chief and the cross examination. This has been done without any unnecessary wider comment or opinion being mixed into the factual reporting. The Council recognises that there is potential for reporting, perhaps particularly in court cases of this nature, to add to distress. The Council notes, however, that it was open to the prosecutor to make application for suppression orders to protect the complainant had this been deemed appropriate. If the Court had made such an order, the newspaper’s coverage of the trial would have been constrained by the terms of the suppression order. This did not appear to have occurred.
The editor has taken account of concerns expressed by X and made certain decisions about how the trial would be covered taking into account those concerns. It is apparent from his preparedness to do so that he was not without sympathy for the position of the young person but it is also apparent that he had to balance this against the wider public interest in what he considered a compelling and important story. He has endeavoured to explain this balancing exercise to X.
For the reasons set out above, the Council does not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.