I was chuffed to see this in this morning’s Stuff “Today in politics”
Journalist Jon Stephenson’s defamation claim against the Defence Force and its former chief, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones, can go intact to a second jury, a judge has ruled. Stephenson sued because of a press release which Jones issued in May 2011 in response to some articles Stephenson had written about New Zealand’s SAS troops in Afghanistan. Last year, a jury failed to agree on a result and a retrial is expected. Defence had tried to get part of Stephenson’s claim struck out on the basis the words Jones had used did not have the natural and ordinary meaning that Stephenson claimed. However, in the High Court, Justice Alan MacKenzie said he would leave it to the jury to decide what Jones’ words meant.
This originally started out as a claim by Jones and the NZDF that Stephenson had never been some of the places that he’s said he was. John Key in his usual reckless style stupidly waded into the discussion.
When it went to trial as a defamation case against Jones and the NZDF, they had to admit their assertions about Jon Stephenson were wrong.
Mr Stephenson said words in the press release meant that he had made up an account about visiting an Afghan police Crisis Response Unit base in Kabul and interviewing the commander there.
The press release was still on the Defence Force website when the defamation trial started last week.
But in the course of the trial Mr Jones, who is being sued along with the Defence Force, accepted that Mr Stephenson had gone to the base and probably spoke to the commander.
Justice MacKenzie directed the jury that there was now no challenge to Mr Stephenson’s account of the visit.
However the jury was unable to come to verdict that what was said caused Jon Stephenson enough damage to be viewed as defamation. So a second trial is now going ahead. This is mostly because
But the defendants continue to deny the words in the press release had the meaning Mr Stephenson alleged, or were defamatory. Even if they were defamatory they were in response to an “attack”, and it might be worth $10, their lawyer said.
In my view this is complete crap. Basically the NZDF and Jones royally screwed up by the numbers. They did a direct attack on a journalist for reporting the truth about their forces.
Good journalists make their living by giving facts and to accuse one of making facts up about what they did and who they had seen as Jones and the NZDF did is a direct and deliberate attack on that credibility. They also did it from a position of authority in that they caused other people like John Key to repeat their false claims.
It will affect all of the work that Stephenson does because it goes to the heart of what we expect a journalist to do – record facts accurately. Admittedly this is not always the case with “journalists”, but the profession is now likely to include congentital liars like Cameron Slater who seems to prefer to make up “facts” rather than do the hard yards required to be a good journalist. But of course he is being sued for defamation, so the situation is likely to be self-correcting.
In the case of the NZDF and Stephenson, it is also exactly the type of damage that defamation as a law was meant to curtail. After all if someone wants to deny that something didn’t happen from a position of authority and that someone else is lying, then they should damn well be quite sure that is what happened. The NZDF appears to have been both negligent in their fact checking and more concerned with spinning than being accurate when making their claims.
Now I’m not exactly enamoured about journalists as most people who read these pages are probably aware. But I’ve run across Jon, and he has always impressed me as being one of the more honest and accurate journos I know. He is also very tenacious, so I wasn’t surprised that a second trial happened after the first one’s jury hung. That the NZDF hasn’t fronted up to how much completely they screwed up is quite simply dumb.
Update: See also Russell Brown on a more recent incident.
The most puzzling part of the response to Jon Stephenson’s Collateral Damage report last week for Native Affairs was the extent to which it focused on claims that the programme had not made.
Stephenson’s story drew on both a paper trail and first-person interviews with Afghan villagers to make the case that official accounts of the mission to prosecute those responsible for the killing of a New Zealand soldier in 2010 were not the truth.
John Key and Jonathan Coleman then managed to get questioned by media on things that some lazy journalists had made up and weren’t actually in the Native Affairs program. As usual John Key recklessly ejeculated prematurely and inaccurately at Stephenson. It is a nasty little habit that he has of really disliking people who are accurate.
See the Media Take here.