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18th of July 2018


Media Council rebukes Stuff over inaccurate court reporting

Auckland District Court where the case of the teacher acquitted of all charges was heard. BEVAN READ/STUFF

Auckland District Court where the case of the teacher acquitted of all charges was heard.

In upholding a complaint from Meredith Connell the Media Council has issued a strong rebuke to Stuff over the inaccurate reporting of a court case.

On April 5 Stuff online published an article headlined Children admitted making up sex claims against Auckland teacher to get him fired.

The first sentence stated "Intermediate students admitted they lied that their teacher indecently assaulted girls so he would be fired after yelling at them in class, a court heard".

Both statements were inaccurate.

Following representations from Crown Prosecutor Meredith Connell, who advised that no evidence had been presented in court to substantiate the statements, Stuff conceded some of the reporting was inaccurate and some amendments were made.

From information provided to the Media Council it became apparent that the reporter had relied on the closing statement and notes provided by the defence counsel. It appeared there was no understanding that closing statements are not evidence.

The Council noted: "While accepting that it is impossible for reporters to attend all trials, or even all significant trials, we find the approach taken here surprising, even alarming. Even a very junior court reporter would understand that counsels' closing addresses are not evidence. They are designed to persuade the jury one way or another, and by their very nature interpret or comment on evidence in the manner most favourable to the prosecution or an accused. They can never be a substitute for the evidence itself. In every summing up to a jury a judge will make that very point. It is also unwise of a reporter to accept notes used in closing by one side or the other. Those notes suffer from the same flaws of objectivity that apply to the actual closing addresses themselves.

Furthermore, the headline and the first sentence of the original version of the published story, (and the first sentence that continued for some time after the removal of the headline), is quite sensational. Stuff does not now suggest the evidence contains such an admission. Their reliance is on closing and defence counsel's notes. Not only does that make the story inaccurate in terms of the evidence; it also carries with it the necessary supposition that, despite an admission that the stories were made up, the Crown improperly continued with the prosecution. Furthermore it effectively alleges criminal offending by the three complainants.

"It is further obvious that if the girls had in fact made the concession as reported, the judge inevitably would not have left the matter before the jury but would have dismissed it at the close of the prosecution case."

To compound matters the story had been on-published in other Stuff publications – The Press, Manawatu Standard, Waikato Times, Timaru Herald, Taranaki Daily News, Southland Times, Nelson Mail and the Marlborough Express, but none of these publications had been advised of the amendments made and so were not in a position to publish a correction.

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The Council does have power to censure a publication. It has never done so. The Council considered imposing a censure in this case but felt the case falls just short of such a drastic step.

As a general principle the Council noted that publications should also give some thought to an increasing practice of running comments by counsel and parties to court proceedings into the reporting of court cases. The first is often a subjective view. The second is about the accurate reporting of the evidence and what was actually said in court. There is always a risk of the two being conflated if the two are run together.

The full Media Council decision is here.

 - Stuff

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