18 Jul 2013

Hung jury in Defence Force defamation case

10:31 pm on 18 July 2013

A High Court jury in Wellington has been unable to agree on a verdict in the defamation case involving a freelance journalist and the Defence Force.

The journalist, Jon Stephenson, took the case against the Defence Force and its chief, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones.

He said a Defence Force news release responding to an article he wrote about his visit to a base in Afghanistan implied he had lied about going there.

After nine hours' deliberation, Justice Mackenzie discharged the jury because it had been unable to agree on the case.

It's not yet known whether a second trial will be held.

Radio New Zealand News' court reporter says the jury deliberated for an hour-and-a-half on Wednesday before resuming on Thursday morning. They came back at 5.05pm on Wednesday and told Justice Mackenzie they were unable to reach a decision.

Our reporter says there was an opportunity for a majority decision, with nine of them reaching a decision, but they said that even with further time they didn't believe they were even going to be able to get that far.

Outside the court, Mr Stephenson said he was disappointed there was no decision.

He says he is talking to his legal team about what to do next but he is still hopeful there could be a way of settling the issue away from the courtroom.

He says there's always room to shake hands and walk away with honour satisfied on both sides.

He thanked Lieutenant-General Jones for the concession he made while giving evidence, that Mr Stephenson had indeed gone to Afghanistan.

Lieutenant-General Jones says the evidence in court was convincing and that was the right thing to do.

The Defence Force will make a statement in due course about the inconclusive ending, he said.

Summing up, closing addresses

Summing up the case on Wednesday, Justice Mackenzie gave jurors a list of questions to consider.

They included whether the words in the Defence Force media release meant what Mr Stephenson said they did, and whether they injured his reputation.

The last matter for the jury to consider was whether damages should be paid and, if so, how much.

In his closing address, Mr Stephenson's lawyer Davey Salmon said the Defence Force was careless in the way it responded to the article.

Mr Salmon said the Defence Force had relied on information from an Afghan man with a reputation for dishonesty over someone with a reputation for careful investigative journalism.

He said the Defence Force's statement was partly a hatchet job on Mr Stephenson and partly a bid to avoid an inquiry into actions taken by New Zealand soldiers overseas.

Defence Force lawyer Hugh Rennie said the issue the jury had to decide had nothing to do with whether Jon Stephenson was unhappy or distressed or angry.

Mr Rennie said the case was about whether anyone reading the Defence Force statement would think that it ridiculed him or impaired his reputation.

Mr Stephenson sought $500,000 in damages but Mr Rennie said his career had not been damaged by the Defence Force statement - and if anything was to be paid to him, it shouldn't be more than $10.