19 Sep 2008

Closing addresses made in newspaper contempt trial

8:46 am on 19 September 2008

The lawyer for the Dominion Post editor and its publisher, Fairfax Media, has told the High Court in Wellington they genuinely believed in their right to publish police surveillance information.

The Solicitor-General has taken contempt action over the publication in November last year which he described on Thursday as in a class not previously seen in this country.

The charge relates to publication of police surveillance information gathered during the investigation of suspected terrorism activities in the Ureweras in 2007.

Mr Pankhurst and Fairfax Media deny the allegations

In his closing address, their lawyer said they believed they had a duty to publish information directly relevant to people's understanding of unique events which created fear and concern in the public.

Hugh Rennie QC said the media's right to free speech and the accuseds' right to a fair trial can be upheld simultaneously in this case.

The Solicitor-General described the defences put forward at the trial as inherently contradictory and remarkably flawed.

David Collins QC was making his closing address on Thursday.

He said Mr Pankhurst had no difficulty publishing inadmissible material, but realised he couldn't publish admissible material because that could interfere with the fair trial rights of those arrested in the raids.

Dr Collins said the fact the information came from a source close to the accused people should have given the publishers more reason to question why they were being fed such material.

The Court has reserved its decision, which will be delivered in writing at a later date.

At odds

Two experts offered differing views during the contempt hearing on Wednesday.

Professor Neil Vidmar told the court he believed the articles published in the paper would not merely affect those who read them but could also influence readers' families, co-workers and anyone else they talked to about them.

However, Law Commission deputy chairman Warren Young, who has carried out research into jury behaviour, said the material could be prejudicial, but there were ways to mitigate that, including moving the trial from Wellington to Auckland.

Mr Pankhurst told the court on Tuesday there was a fine balance between the paper's right to freedom of expression in publishing the material and the right of those charged to a fair trial.

Suppression breach denied

Fairfax Media executive editor Paul Thompson told the court on Tuesday the company did not believe it was breaching suppression orders when it published details of police surveillance information.

Mr Thompson told the court the organisation always tries to act lawfully and they were trying to cast light on what had occurred in a very important episode in New Zealand's history.

Mr Pankhurst told the court that the newspaper did not willfully breach suppression orders and he believed the long gap between publication and any trial for those accused would ensure that their right to a fair trial was not breached.

The defendants' lawyer Hugh Rennie, QC, told the court on Monday the decision to publish the information was made for constructive purposes, not to create public fear and concern.

The High Court has been provided with DVDs of news items from Television New Zealand and TV3 which the defence claims shows that the material published in the paper had already been mentioned in previous news broadcasts.

Fairfax accused of sensationalism

On Monday, Dr Collins accused Fairfax Media of publishing what he describes as the most sensational parts of police surveillance information relating to suspected terrorism activities in the Ureweras.

In November 2007, Dr Collins ruled that those arrested during the Urewera investigation could not be charged under the Terrorism Suppression Act.

That meant that the surveillance information could never be put before court proceedings, but The Dominion Post went ahead and published it.

Dr Collins told the High Court that such publication breached a number of suppression orders made by District Court judges and also affected the fair trial rights of those arrested.

Strict suppression orders were in place for the hearing.