In upholding a complaint from law firm Meredith Connell the Media Council has issued a strong criticism of the website 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 opening 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. The Media Council says it became apparent, from information provided to it, 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.”
The Council says not only was the story inaccurate in terms of the evidence; it also carried 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,” the Council says.
“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 some Stuff regional publications – but none of these publications had been advised of the amendments made and so were not in a position to publish a correction,” the Council says.
The full Media Council decision is here