Case Number: 931

Council Meeting: JUNE 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

Alan McRobie, of Rangiora, complained about inaccuracies he found in a 19 March 2003 article on the STV (single transferable vote) system for elections. A poll on whether Christchurch City should change from FPP (first past the post) voting to STV was pending. The complaint has been upheld.

As a first point, the complainant, a well-known author and consultant on electoral matters, alleged that the words “determined by electoral officials” in the following passage were inaccurate: “Put simply, candidates win if they reach a quota determined by electoral officials who take the number of valid votes and divide this by one more than the number of vacancies contested.” He said that the word “calculated” should have been used, to make clear that the number of valid votes determined the quota. At a community group he had been addressing some concern had been expressed that officials might manipulate the size of the quota for a particular purpose.

The editor of The Press rejected this interpretation of the four words, saying that the full sentence made plain that officials had to use a specific formula. The Press Council agrees with the editor. In the context, the verb “determine” clearly has the well-established connotation of “to ascertain definitely by observation, examination or calculation.”

The main body of the complaint concerns the discussion in the article of the way in which votes are processed under STV, and the example it gives - the filling of four places by 50 voters. The complainant said the article was inaccurate in not indicating consistently that the quota in STV elections has to be higher than the figure arrived at by dividing the total of valid votes by one more than the number of vacancies. [In large-scale elections processed by computer the quota for filling four vacancies is commonly stated as “a fifth of the votes, plus a fraction of a vote”. For such small-scale elections as that in the example it would be stated as “a fifth of the votes plus one.”]

The complainant criticised the following passage, which follows on from the sentence (“Put simply ...contested”) quoted above: “This means that for any mayoralty the magic figure is one half of the votes cast (technically a nudge above this to prevent a tie). Likewise if a ward returns three councillors, the successful candidates must get one-quarter of the vote.” The complainant said that the phrase “technically a nudge above this” failed to indicate that this addition was a critical aspect of the STV quota. The Press Council considers, however, that this phrase does equate sufficiently with “plus a fraction of a vote”. The second sentence about a ward election, on the other hand, made no reference at all to the margin above “one-quarter of the vote” essential to the quota, as it should have.

The central target of the complaint is the article’s handling of the hypothetical example of 50 students choosing four prefects from seven candidates. It showed how votes could be transferred to produce four successful candidates. This information was also set out in a table accompanying the article.

The complainant saw this discussion and the table as fundamentally flawed because the article said “... 50 students have been asked to pick four prefects from seven candidates. So the quota is set at one-fifth of 50 or 10 votes.” He pointed out that the quota should have been stated as 11 (one-fifth of 50, + 1). If the quota were only 10 then five candidates could potentially secure it - but there were only four vacancies to be filled.

The core of the complaint is that the newspaper failed to take any action to correct its inaccuracies “at a time when accurate public information was of the essence.”

The editor defended the article against what he saw as criticism from an academic. “Essentially, he judges us as wrong because we did not give an exhaustive account of how STV works .... the article must be judged as a piece of journalism, written to be understood by a reader with a layperson’s interest in STV. Further, I think that any person reading The Press article would have been given a factually accurate account of the system and would not have been misled about it.” He went on to say that Mr McRobie was technically correct in saying that the quota in the example should have been 11 votes. “But the point is minor. The average reader would not have been seriously misinformed by what we printed.” The newspaper had decided there was no need to correct the story.

The Press Council thinks that the editor misrepresents the complainant’s concern when he asserts that the complainant wanted an exhaustive account of STV. Mr McRobie simply wanted The Press to acknowledge there were errors in its presentation of how an STV election works and to publish a prompt correction. An internal newspaper memo by the author of the article, copied to the complainant, similarly exaggerates the issue: “Of course Alan [McRobie] is technically right - but at a level that the vast majority of readers would not understand.” The Press Council believes that the complainant had identified a basic error in the simple example the newspaper presented, not some abstruse nuance of little significance.

The Council considers that the newspaper made an error of judgment in treating the inaccuracies in its presentation as trivial, and in its attitude to its readers. It was an excellent idea to use a simple example to illustrate how STV works, but that brought an obligation to get all the detail of the description and the table correct. The explanation given in the article and table about the hypothetical election was inaccurate and misleading. It takes no great mathematical subtlety to work out that if the quota is set at 10 then five candidates might be able to secure it from a total of 50 votes. Readers could have been left wondering how five are then reduced to four.

The Press Council thinks that The Press, having acknowledged the error in its presentation of how an STV election would work, should have acted promptly to run a correction and a revised table based on the correct quota of 11 votes. Nothing very complex was required to sort the matter out. The newspaper invited the complainant to write a letter to the editor for publication, or a piece of his own. This was to treat the matter as one primarily between the newspaper and the complainant. The newspaper should have seen that its primary obligation was to the large body of readers who had been misinformed on a highly topical issue.

The complaint is upheld.