Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the APNZ News Service office in Wellington.

Journalist's defamation trial: Jury unable to reach decision

War correspondent Jon Stephenson giving evidence in his defamation case against Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones in the High Court at Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
War correspondent Jon Stephenson giving evidence in his defamation case against Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones in the High Court at Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The journalist who brought a defamation case against the head of the Defence Force is disappointed the jury could not reach a verdict but says he won a moral victory in the courtroom.

Jon Stephenson brought a civil case against Lieutenant General Rhys Jones for defamation over a Defence Force statement about articles he wrote during 2010 and 2011.

Stephenson was seeking $500,000 and costs.

One of Stephenson's articles, which featured in Metro Magazine in 2011, described how SAS soldiers transferred Afghan detainees to authorities who tortured them.

A statement issued by General Jones denied Stephenson had performed an interview with the commander of a crisis response unit in Afghanistan. It also stated that he had never entered the base where the meeting took place. Three articles written by Stephenson had been based on this interview.

Since hearing evidence from Stephenson, General Jones' lawyer Hugh Rennie QC said the general had accepted the journalist entered the base and conducted the interview.

After deliberating for about nine hours, the jury returned to the High Court at Wellington this afternoon to tell Justice Alan MacKenzie they were unable to reach a verdict.

The jury had to first decide if General Jones had defamed Stephenson, and then if they found that to be the case, had to make a finding on damages to be awarded to Stephenson.

For a majority decision to be reached, nine or more of the 12 members must agree.

The foreperson told Justice McKenzie they were all "strong-minded, opinionated" people and he did not believe, even given more time, they would be able to reach a verdict.

The judge then discharged the jury.

Outside court, Stephenson said there was no decision yet on whether to seek a retrial and he would take advice from his counsel on his other options.

He would not be drawn on what those options were.

He was disappointed with the outcome but said he was "delighted" with the acknowledgement by General Jones that the Defence Force accepted he had entered the base for an interview with its commander.

"The main reason we came here, the fact that I did go to the base and I did interview the commander, like I reported, has been conceded by the Defence Force.

"That's what I was fighting for."

He said it had cost a "considerable" amount of money to bring the case to court but he would not say whether others had sponsored him.

Stephenson did not rule out negotiating a settlement with the Defence Force to avoid a future retrial.

He said if the Defence Force had taken down its statement from its website when he asked them to a couple of years ago, "we would not be here now".

- APNZ

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