Case Number: 2238 DARRYL DAWSON AGAINST WHAKATANE BEACON
Council Meeting MARCH 2012
Darryl Dawson, of Whakatane, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about coverage in the Whakatane Beacon of a police investigation into campaign overspending by the successful mayoral candidate in the district’s 2010 local body elections and the paper’s refusal to publish his letters on the subject.
His complaint against one of the newspaper’s articles is upheld, along with a complaint about the heading over it. A further complaint about the paper’s decision not to publish his letters is not upheld.
On October 8, 2010, the day before voting closed, under the heading Our poll puts Bonne on top, the Beacon reported that a poll it had conducted indicated that candidate Tony Bonne looked set to become Whakatane’s new mayor and that five other candidates were well behind. Mr Bonne was duly elected.
Subsequently, it was reported that Mr Bonne had exceeded by $928 his $20,000 spending limit under the Local Electoral Act 2001, and five complaints about the over-spending were made to the Electoral Office and investigated by police. Among the complainants was Mr Dawson.
The Beacon published two articles, on December 7 and 22, 2010, when news of the overspending broke.
In August, 2011, after an investigation, the police decided not to prosecute Mr Bonne for breaching the act.
On October 21, 2011, under the front-page heading Complaints by ‘Sore Losers’, the Beacon reported that the police investigation into the over-spending “speculates complaints about the breach were lodged by sore losers.”
The investigating officer was quoted as saying it was his view the Mayor had taken reasonable steps to ensure he had not intentionally overspent the limit.
The newspaper reported the officer as saying those who complained might have been driven by “questionable motives, given each of them is connected to an unsuccessful candidate.” The newspaper reported all five as objecting to any inference their complaints were based on “sour grapes.”
The officer had said the law had never been tested, any fine would be small and punishment would most likely be a conviction and discharge.
Advertising costs at the Beacon were among the items in the Mayor’s campaign expenses. On that issue, the newspaper quoted the officer as saying the Mayor had been, “at worst, ‘a little slick.’”
Correspondence provided to the Press Council contains claims and counter-claims by the complainant and the newspaper that are not within the purview of the Council to investigate. It is obvious that the relationship between Mr Dawson and the managing editor, Mark Longley, has been tested by their differences of opinion.
Nevertheless, the complaint involves two levels – the newspaper’s business arrangements with Mr Bonne as an advertiser, both as a candidate and a business owner in Whakatane, and how the newspaper reported the investigation into the overspending. Mr Bonne admitted the overspending from the outset.
In an undated letter to the editor about the October 21 report, Mr Dawson said he saw no reference to police speculation that the complainants were “sore losers” and its selective use of the police report was unbalanced and misleading. The report also made no mention of the Beacon discounting the Mayor’s election advertising by intermingling five advertisements with his business account, a reduction of $600.
Mr Dawson submitted a similar letter on November 9 and met the editor about the same time. The Press Council is not in a position to judge what happened but the meeting went badly and was short.
The letters were not published and Mr Dawson formally complained to the Press Council on November 12, 2012, about the October 21 article, the non-publication of his letters and his treatment by the Beacon.
Mr Dawson also believed the Beacon could be “seen to be promoting” Mr Bonne as a favourite by publishing the October 8, 2010, story one day before the election.
Subsequently, he complained about a letter published on November 23, 2011, over the nom de plume, Mayoral Supporter, which attacked those who were still “going on” about the over-spending. The letter named and made a derogatory remark about one of the mayoral candidates.
Just over three weeks after its first report on the police inquiry results - on November 16, 2011 - the Beacon published a much fuller account of the police investigation of the Mayor’s overspending. The article pointed out mistakes in the police report, and added information that Mr Dawson believed should have been included in the October article.
This included a police recommendation that the Mayor should be let off with a formal warning. The report also noted that while the officer accepted statements from the Mayor that mitigated his position, he gave no weight to the concerns of the five complainants who had said he did not even interview them.
The report said the officer had concluded three complainants supported failed candidates because that was “anecdotally rumoured” to be the case, although he had never asked them. He had also said information he had seen indicated the Mayor took all reasonable steps not to exceed the expenditure cap, but the paper noted he had released none of that information.
The report said the only hint of disapproval in the officer’s report appeared to be a reference to the Mayor’s election advertising and how five advertisements had attracted a cheaper rate by being charged through his business account. “He also placed Sportsworld advertisements featuring his photograph in newspapers during the campaign, something he has not done since.”
The police officer “sums it up as, at worst, ‘slick’ behaviour,” it said.
The article went on to quote a representative of Local Government New Zealand and an Auckland University law lecturer. It was accompanied by a “vox pop” article giving the views of local residents about the overspending and subsequent publicity.
In a response to the Press Council, Beacon managing editor Mark Longley said the reference to the “sore losers” remark was within the story in that the police officer linked them to unsuccessful candidates. All of the complainants had been given the opportunity to respond by the paper.
The paper had to keep in mind that the Mayor had been “cleared” by a police investigation and it intended to write two more articles on the subject. This was known by other people, including Mr Dawson.
In his opinion, Mr Dawson’s criticism was more directed at the police and this was something he should take up with them.
He had advised Mr Dawson that he would not be publishing letters about the mayoral overspend or anything related to it given the police had concluded their inquiry, the paper had followed it up and “it was time to move on.”
The Press Council can adjudicate only on the information before it and within its areas of responsibility which relate to what was or was not published in the Beacon’s editorial columns.
In this case, however, the Council sought a copy of the police documents so that it could adjudicate on Mr Dawson’s complaint in fuller knowledge of what had been said by the police officer and those he interviewed.
On the issue of not publishing Mr Dawson’s letters, the Press Council has repeatedly ruled that editors have a right to decide what they will or will not publish. There are no exceptional circumstances in this instance that would change that view.
Nevertheless, the Council finds it odd that the editor should tell Mr Dawson presumably at their meeting on November 8 that he did not intend to publish any more letters on the topic when the paper published an anonymous letter on November 23 and he was aware further stories about the topic would be published. Printing anonymous letters that directly attack individuals is not a fair practice.
In explanation of this, to a direct question from the Press Council, Mr Longley said some letter writers asked that their names be withheld, and “if it is a decent letter, we publish it.” He did not have the original letter but he believed it would have come with a request not to publish the name. “We had a few letters anti-Tony so I thought in the interest of balance it would be good to publish that.”
This too appears odd. Having told one correspondent the topic was closed and “it was time to move on,” allowing an anonymous correspondent to reopen the debate is inconsistent.
Further, despite the editor’s contention that it was time to “move on,” the newspaper published further articles on November 16, 2011, which the editor says were always planned. Such knowledge makes the editor’s “move on” comment appear strange.
The November article gave readers significant further information not mentioned in the initial October story, information indicating shortcomings in the police investigation and other detail of importance.
The editor has not explained why such detail could not have been included in the October article when it had the 217 pages of police documents at the time. All relevant information should have been in the first article, including a clear explanation of advertising with the newspaper.
Usually, the Council does not uphold complaints where a newspaper corrects itself but the second story would not have had the impact of the first when all the information was available and should have been published.
The editor said the term “sore losers” was implied from the police officer’s report. The officer did not use the term, which is a harsh rebuke and casts unnecessary aspersions on a legitimate action. Care needed to be taken with such an implication, particularly when all candidates denied their complaints were the result of sour grapes.
The heading states emphatically that the complaints came from “sore losers” and in the Council’s view the paper was not justified in using such a strong heading with words in quotations implying they were said when the police officer never stated as such and his view, given he had not interviewed the complainants, needed to be treated with caution as well.
The newspaper was also in a conflicted position in that it was part of the story because of the advertising connection with the Mayor and his business.
The way a newspaper company undertakes its advertising business does not come within the purview of the Council but exposure of such detail does not leave the newspaper in a comfortable position.
Mr Dawson’s complaint about the editor’s decision not to publish his letters is not upheld.
His complaint about the October 21 article is upheld. While the November 16 article belatedly added some necessary balance, such details should have been incorporated in the earlier article.
His complaint against the heading in the October article is upheld. Its use of the term “sore losers” was misleading in that the term was never used and should never have been given such emphasis and weight in a front-page headline on what was at best speculation.
Penny Harding dissented from the Council uphold decision in relation to the October 21 article. She was of the view that publication of the second article was sufficient to correct the errors and omissions of the first article.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Chris Darlow abstained from the discussion as he had not been present at the meeting when the complaint was initially discussed.