No decision in Defence defamation trial

Last updated 18:15 18/07/2013
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
SMALL VICTORY: Journalist Jon Stephenson.
Rhys Jones
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
CONCESSION MADE: Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones.

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A Wellington jury has been unable to reach a decision on whether Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones defamed freelance war reporter Jon Stephenson.

The High Court jury of seven men and five women began deliberating just after 3.30pm yesterday. Jurors returned about 5pm today to say they had been unable to reach a decision. They were then discharged.

Speaking outside court, Stephenson said he was disappointed that the jury had not been able to reach a decision.

"But I'm also delighted that the main reason we came here, the fact that I did go to the base and I did interview the commander as I reported, has been conceded by the Defence Force.

"The point was not about the money, the point was to hold the Defence Force to account for saying things that weren't true."

Stephenson did not rule out the possibility of a retrial of the case or settling with the Defence Force.

Jones said he had been happy to make the concession he did after hearing Stephenson's evidence, but added that the claim had been defended to defend the people who were accused in a Metro magazine article Stephenson wrote.

The jurors previously returned to court once today for clarification after receiving a copy of yesterday's summing up from trial judge Justice Alan MacKenzie.

Stephenson was claiming $500,000. He says he was defamed in a press release Jones issued in May 2011 in response to Stephenson's Metro miagazine article about the handling of detainees in Afghanistan and whether SAS troops had passed prisoners to authorities known to use torture.

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 Jones, who is being sued along with the Defence Force, accepted that Stephenson had gone to the base and probably spoke to the commander.

Justice MacKenzie directed the jury that there was now no challenge to Stephenson's account of the visit.

But the defendants continue to deny the words in the press release had the meaning 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.

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