Diplomat case coverage concerns

SPEAKING OUT: Tania Billingsley waived her right to name suppression.
SPEAKING OUT: Tania Billingsley waived her right to name suppression.

The Law Society says the media must consider whether a quest for exclusive stories is harming "fundamental rights enjoyed by all New Zealanders" after a televised interview of the complainant in an alleged attempted rape was broadcast before a trial.

Tania Billingsley, 22, waived her right to name suppression on Wednesday, revealing herself as the alleged victim of Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail, who invoked diplomatic immunity to escape charges of attempted rape and burglary in May.

He has since fled the country although the Malaysian government has said it will return him to New Zealand to assist with the police investigation.

On Wednesday night Billingsley gave an interview to TV3's 3rd Degree in which she described the feeling of being treated as "just backdrop to political drama". She also called for Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully to quit over his handling of the affair.

Her name suppression was lifted, at her request, just minutes before the interview went to air.

Law Society president Chris Moore said both the Billingsley interview and a newspaper article this week polling the public on whether former ACT MP John Banks should be convicted covered matters which could or would come before the courts.

"We may be coming close to harmful interference with the process of how we determine guilt," Moore said in a statement, adding that the society was not opposed to any media comment after a court decision had been made.

"What is worrying is that we may be seeing a testing of the boundaries and some time soon the limits could be exceeded, with a resulting miscarriage of justice."

MediaWorks, owners of TV3, said it strived to operate within the law, while also providing audiences with information of any kind. It had been careful not to include anything which will be before the court or was at issue.

"When we considered allowing Ms Billingsley to speak we had to balance her free speech right against the constraints that arise when a matter is before the court," MediaWorks legal counsel Clare Bradley said in a statement.

"We were acutely conscious of preserving fair trial for both the defendant and for the complainant. So, we avoided any reference to the issues that will be before the court if the defendant returns to face trial."

But a leading legal expert warned Billingsley may have weakened the prosecution against her alleged attacker by giving the interview ahead of the case, which he said was "unprecedented" in his more than 30 years as an academic.

"As far as I can recall it's unprecedented of a potential complainant going public about the events surrounding the alleged crime before the matter's come anywhere near a court room," said Warren Brookbanks, professor of law at the University of Auckland.

"The danger from that point of view is I think the complainant exposes herself to the risk of jeopardising her credibility as a witness and thereby possibly weakening the prosecution's case by going public before the matter's come to trial."

Brookbanks said the primary witness "has gone public before the trial and made statements which the defendant is completely unable to respond to, and I don't think it's right".

Barrister Stephen Bonnar, QC, said allowing the media to conduct interviews with participants in ongoing proceedings ran the risk of material getting out into the public domain which was prejudicial.

"It's not an answer simply to say we're not talking about the facts of the case. You can prejudice proceedings by other means, which may not have anything to do with the facts of the case."

Anything which could make a juror more sympathetic towards and party, or biased against another "has the potential to influence their determination," Bonnar said.

The Malaysian High Commission declined to comment on whether reporting of the case affected Malaysia's faith in the system to give Rizalman a fair trial.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that the arrangements for Rizalman's return were still being arranged.

McCully declined to comment.