A J MC CRACKEN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 1057

Council Meeting: JULY 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

INTRODUCTION
A J McCracken complains that an article “Culture Change” published in the New Zealand Listener on 11 February 2006 was unbalanced, presented assertions as facts, repeated “lies” about Glenfield College (“the school”), and lacked accuracy and balance This, Mr McCracken asserted was “mischievous and wilfully damaging” to the school and the article was “damaging to the profession of journalism”.

The complaint is not upheld.

BACKGROUND
Following allegations made in late 2004 that the staff of the school were being bullied and intimidated, the Education Review Office (“ERO”) undertook a special review to evaluate particular areas of governance and management of the school. ERO reported in February 2005 (relevantly) that it had found the school staff culture divisive, the Board of Trustees (“the Board”) not governing effectively, and the Principal not managing staff relationships well. Because ERO was not confident the Board could resolve these serious issues, it recommended that the Board be dissolved and a Commissioner be appointed.
Each of those steps duly occurred.

ERO identified for the Commissioner three key areas which it hoped could be improved. These were governance, school management and staff culture. ERO indicated it would return to the school within 12 months to evaluate the progress made.

The follow up review took place in about September 2005. A letter dated 25 November 2005 summarising ERO’s findings on this review was sent to the parents and school community. This recorded (as relevant here) that concerns remained about “the management of student behaviour, the physical and emotional safety of students and staff and the lack of collaborative leadership. In some instances, positive developments have been undermined by staff, who have responded negatively to new initiatives. This has frustrated other staff who are committed to providing high quality learning opportunities for students. The best teachers and most effective heads of department have had considerable difficulty in sharing and consolidating good practice. The lack of a shared vision for school improvement and the low level of self review compound these problems.”

The (then) Principal resigned subsequent to this second review.

THE BASIS OF THE COMPLAINT
Mr McCracken complains that the article published breaches Principle 1 which requires accuracy and balance and Principle 6 which requires publications, as far as possible, to make proper distinctions between the reporting of facts and opinion, comment or conjecture.

Mr McCracken further complains that the article was “wilfully damaging” to the school.

THE MAGAZINE’S RESPONSE
The Editor asserted that the article was an accurate reflection of what was the first interview conducted with the former Principal. She observed that his resignation “followed substantial media attention amid allegations of bullying”. The magazine article referred to the reports by ERO and drew from these as well as from the comments made about the school by the former Principal and the former Chair of the Board. The author of the article also sought comment from a psychologist regarding effective organisational change and the problems that can be encountered with that process.

The Editor stated that the article was intended to provide another insight into what had happened at the school and stressed it was the first interview with the former Principal who, to date, had not made public comment. She maintained that as a person with over 25 years experience in education he was entitled to an opinion and the magazine was entitled to report it.

The Business Manager of the magazine (in a later response to the complaint) rejected the claim that the article had done further damage to the school relying on the findings of the ERO reports to illustrate that the damage had already been done.

FINDING
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint despite having some sympathy with Mr McCracken’s complaint.

The article was intended to be a reflection of the views of the former principal and the former Chair of the Board. The magazine could have helped itself by making this more apparent on the face of the article. For example, the standfirst of the article could be read as suggesting a wider intention. If, as the standfirst suggests, the intent of the article was to determine “what went wrong” then this Council would incline to the view that more balance was required. However, reading the article as a whole makes it clearer that the primary focus was to hear the views of the former Principal.

The article itself does not purport to provide a complete picture from all interested parties’ perspectives. It seeks only to provide one opinion which, according to the magazine, had not previously been reported. The Editor has the prerogative to elect to publish such a story. The magazine nevertheless failed to be as clear as it should have been that, despite the standfirst, this was never more than a friendly platform for the former principal’s views, and so a much narrower story than readers and other staff at the school were led to believe

It is evident that Mr McCracken disagrees with the views expressed but mere disagreement is not sufficient for the Council to find the magazine in breach of the Statement of Principles.

Insofar as the article only set out to report the views of two persons (with comment from a third disinterested person), the Council finds that the article does not offend against the principle requiring accuracy. Further, the Council is satisfied that the article is sufficiently clear that what is being reported is opinion placed in the context of the two ERO reports about the school. The Council finds that fact and opinion are distinguishable in the article complained about.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Terry Snow