Editorial: Journalist vindicated despite jury indecision

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Officials must think twice before making false claims

Jon Stephenson has been vindicated in court despite the jury's indecision. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jon Stephenson has been vindicated in court despite the jury's indecision. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Jon Stephenson ventured where few journalists have gone when he sued the head of the Defence Force for defamation. In court this week, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones conceded the issues of fact yet the jury could not agree on a verdict.

Though only nine of the 12 needed to agree, the foreman told the judge they were all "strong-minded, opinionated" people and he did not believe that given more time they would be able to reach a decision.

This means at least four of those strong-minded people do not believe it defames a journalist to suggest he would fabricate such basic elements of his story as a visit to a base and a conversation with a commander. They must think journalists do this.

All journalists are accustomed to the jibe that they have made something up. It may not be entirely in jest. Journalists are human, they make mistakes, they are guilty at times of misinterpretation, rushing to judgment, selective emphasis and many other foibles but they do not make things up.

The first principle of journalism, distinguishing it from treatments of history and current events that assume a "dramatic licence", is its strict and abiding commitment to truth.

General Jones' statement was prepared by a Defence Force press adviser who should know this. Stephenson has been vindicated in court despite the jury's indecision. Officials who are too quick to issue denials of somebody's careful work should take note.

- NZ Herald

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