X AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint by X against the Waikato Times concerning the manner in which it dealt with aspects of court proceedings taken against her.
On 9 July 2001 the complainant was convicted after pleading guilty to the theft of a large quantity of pills from her employer, a District Health Board. She was sentenced on 27 July. On 3 August her name was permanently suppressed. She had originally also been charged with possession of a precursor substance, but that charge was withdrawn by the police. The summary of facts that accompanied the charges was amended to delete material relating to the potential street value of the drug that could have been manufactured from the stolen pills.
X complained to the Press Council that the Waikato Times had breached her privacy by publishing details about her age and employment. She also asserted that the newspaper had breached the terms of the final suppression order. The Council does not endorse her view on either matter. The offending was clearly of great public interest and needed to be reported. Courts are given considerable discretion as to what information about defendants may be suppressed. In this instance, interim and final orders made by different judges suppressed only her name. The Waikato Times was therefore entitled to publish other information stated publicly in the court proceedings.
She also complained that the newspaper had breached standards of accuracy and fairness by referring to material relating to the charge that had been dropped by the police. In its 10 July report of the previous day’s court proceedings the Waikato Times referred incorrectly to certain information about the potential street value of the stolen pills as having been in the police summary read in court. As indicated above, that material had been deleted from the police summary when only the single charge of theft was proceeded with. Later reports in the newspaper also referred to the possible use and value of the stolen pills.
The editor accepted that a mistake had been made in the July 10 report, and offered, in a letter to the complainant dated 30 July, to print a correction. The complainant has advised the Press Council that she did not receive this letter. As there was no response to that offer the newspaper took no further action. The Press Council thinks the newspaper acted promptly to offer correction of its misstatement about what was read out by the police in court. It is unfortunate that the complainant did not receive the newspaper’s 30 July letter containing this offer. The judge at the final hearing referred to this misstatement as having occurred “quite accidentally”, and the Press Council does not think further comment is required.
As regards the other references to the possible implications of the theft, the editor stated that the information the newspaper printed had been confirmed by police officers outside the formal court proceedings, and had been attributed to them. The newspaper saw these comments as relevant to the story of the theft conviction. The Press Council considers that the newspaper’s use of information freely supplied to a reporter by the police in this way falls squarely within acceptable journalistic practice.
The complaint is not upheld.
People with complaints against a newspaper should first complain to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10 879 The Terrace, Wellington. Tel 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is available on the internet at www.presscouncil.org.nz