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Jon Stephenson vs NZDF retrial

Written By: - Date published: 11:20 am, July 11th, 2014 - 9 comments
Categories: making shit up, Media, military - Tags: , , , ,

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.

9 comments on “Jon Stephenson vs NZDF retrial ”

  1. woodpecker 1

    Excellent interview with Jon Stephenson last night on Media Watch on Maori TV.
    Sorry have not yet learned to link.

    [lprent: http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/media-take/S01E002/media-take-series-1-episode-2 ]

  2. greywarbler 2

    Was there a time when our defence forces were taken to task that they could accept their fault and man up to take it on the chin?

    • A collapsing bridge that failed because of lack of good weatherproofing. The people involved ended up losing their farm and livelihood.
    • Young men on a training exercise died on mountain through lack of proper equipment and pastoral care.
    • Young fellow drowned in lake.
    • Young chap’s truck falls off high road and kills him.
    • Going to a war with instructions to act as support not combatants when they knew that they would be drawn in. Bad faith with our government

    Responsible Israelis know that you can’t trust the defence forces to bring peace
    and tell you all the information they have that justifies any of their actions until it’s too late to make a protest.

  3. Jrobin 3

    Notice that Rhys Jones was present for at least one of the meetings covered by John Campbell’s coverage of spying. Is it surprising then that Jones is angry when he sees Stephenson telling the truth about anything. He has a vested interest in bullshit just like our Prime Minister.

  4. ianmac 4

    Bullies enjoy denigrating the victim. Especially if the victim threatens the bully’s status. And should we get cross with the bully especially if he is in a position of power? I do.
    The bully in this case can say whatever he likes to the Public and leave the idea that the victim is rubbish. By the time it is corrected it is too late. Damage done.
    So for Jon and others who are brave enough to speak out, Hooray! Keep up the good work.

  5. Morrissey 5

    In the following script de télévision à clef, the aforesaid Lt-Gen. Rhs Jn*s may or not be the ARMY GENERAL WHO CANNOT BE NAMED that makes an unpleasant appearance near the finish….

    Open mike 04/08/2013

  6. adam 6

    I know you may not like journalist to much lprent. But the above is the most precise and clearest overview I have read on this issue. (or damn fine journalism) When ever this case has appeared in the conservative press, it was represented in a woolly fashion – in particular on TV3 at the end of the first trial, they seemed hell bent on making it unclear and a somewhat murky affair.

  7. Tracey 7

    How much has this cost the defence force/crown so far?

  8. Mike the Savage One 8

    Jon Stephenson is one of the very few journalists people in this country should be damned proud of. Sadly, given the wrong “tall poppy syndrome” approach so many take, he is “singled out” as one who gets accused of “polluting” the nest, as the establishment, and some colleagues, do not like someone daring to speak and report the truth.

    Most modern day journalists are nothing but willing, opportunistic mercenaries, happy to work for whatever private or public media outlet, and they do as the Chief Editor tells them, who will again be passing on spoken or unspoken expectations from the commercially minded bosses that run their operations.

    Nowadays you “move ahead” in the media, when you join the gossip column reporters, join the scandal and disaster reporters, go to parties with the politicians, celebs, the rich, influential and famous.

    Hard, daring work, even going to places like Afghanistan, that is stuff the “ordinary” graduate media careerists is not keen on, nor interested in. You can earn good money, and enjoy some perks, reporting on freak weather events, standing by the Auckland Harbour Bridge with an umbrella in the rain.

    Also favoured are tweets mentioning you, that some top ministers and MPs may exchange, as it lifts your “profile”. You do nothing to upset them too much, as that will mean, no Pinot Noir from John Key next Christmas, or no invitation to the many functions and balls where they all mix with their donors and lobbyists.

    Stuff these bastards, in the military, in government and elsewhere, trying to discredit Jon, he is one of the very few honest and respectable characters that do the hard, risky work, and at times he risks his health and well being doing so.

    Respect Jon, keep up the fight, against a rotten society, whose corrupt elite and bureaucracy deserve to be exposed and dismantled!

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