ALF NEWMAN AGAINST THE NELSON MAIL

Case Number: 2071

Council Meeting: MAY 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Nelson Mail

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Alf Newman against The Nelson Mail in respect of two articles published on 28 February 2009.

Background
The complaint relates to two articles published in the Saturday Weekend edition of The Nelson Mail. The front page article covered a challenge by Nelson City Councillor Pete Rainey to the local Grey Power group to canvass their membership prior to claiming to speak on their behalf and a rebuttal by Grey Power president Gordon Currie that it did not pretend to speak for all its 12,000-plus Nelson members. The story pointed to a feature article entitled Shades of Grey carried inside the newspaper. This article was a backgrounder to Grey Power and quoted Grey Power president Gordon Currie. Also present at the interview was Alf Newman, identified as one of Grey Power’s local government committee members and the author of a 1000-word article concerning Grey Power representation and the right of the Nelson City Council to represent the Nelson community among other issues.

Complaints
Mr Newman complained of false reporting by The Nelson Mail in articles concerning local Grey Power criticism of the Nelson City Council, the newspaper’s description of the tone of the criticisms as being unacceptably aggressive and abusive and a claim that one Nelson City Council member was a particular target for criticism by three Grey Power representatives including Mr Newman.
Mr Newman argued The Nelson Mail named the three committee members (forming the local government committee of Nelson Grey Power) as acting for Grey Power, and undertaking “almost defamatory” and “incredibly personal” criticism of Nelson City Council.
Mr Newman argued that the sentences: “Some are almost defamatory. Some are incredibly personal” were unsubstantiated commentary without verification, and that there was no attribution to the comment linking the letters to Grey Power.
Mr Newman argued that the articles accused the same three Grey Power members of making one councillor, Pete Rainey, a particular target for criticism.
Mr Newman claimed these allegations were false. He rejected that there was a link between the three men’s views of the council and their membership of Grey Power. He requested the newspaper produce evidence that he was acting “in any Grey Power capacity or purporting to speak for or otherwise represent Grey Power.”
If evidence was not to be forthcoming Mr Newman expected a public retraction and an “appropriately fulsome apology within seven days.” Otherwise he threatened further action.
The initial complaint was made to the Head of Publishing, Fairfax Media in Auckland. After receiving a response from Bill Moore, editor of The Nelson Mail, Mr Newman refined and redirected his complaint and after a further email from Mr Moore, Mr Newman complained to the Press Council specifically citing Principles 1, 2 and 6.

Nelson Mail response
Nelson Mail editor Bill Moore promptly answered that after careful study he could find no accusation of “abusive criticism” and invited Mr Newman to write a letter to the newspaper with his views. Mr Newman replied that the editor had missed the nub of the complaint and resubmitted a refined complaint. The editor replied that there were no grounds for retraction and again invited Mr Newman to write a letter for publication.
In response to Mr Newman’s complaint to the Press Council, the editor responded that it was without justification. He provided a selection of letters from three men, who are (or were at the time) members of the Grey Power’s local government subcommittee as proof of their “robust” style in critiquing the activities of the Nelson City Council and Councillor Rainey in particular. He stated that the three men were well known as Grey Power representatives to newspaper readers who follow council news.
He addressed a specific complaint by Mr Newman regarding the sentence: “I get a bit disturbed about some of the letters in your paper” from Grey Power sources. The editor advised that the quote came from the Nelson mayor commenting on the relationship between the city council and Grey Power.

Discussion
The essence of Mr Newman’s complaint is threefold: that The Nelson Mail accuses Grey Power and its named members of “unacceptably aggressive and abusive criticism”; that a sentence regarding “almost defamatory” and “incredibly personal” letters from Grey Power quarters is unsubstantiated and unattributed comment; and that the three named Grey Power members have made one councillor a particular target for criticism when Mr Newman says he has not made any statement as a Grey Power spokesman.

In relation to the first point, about the article describing Grey Power as “unacceptably aggressive” and making “abusive criticism”, the feature writer legitimately raises the question: “Might their feisty, aggressive approach to their campaigns be part of the problem?” This is a valid question in describing an organization which has issued a 1000-word article that accuses the local council of a Mugabe-like reaction to criticism. Comparing the local councillors’ response to criticism in such terms is an aggressive stance.

In relation to the second point regarding the unattributed / unsubstantiated commentary that some Grey Power letters to the newspaper are “almost defamatory” and “incredibly personal”, the writer took particular care to indicate exactly which words the mayor spoke and which were implied by his comment. The quote marks are shown to end prior to the “from Grey Power sources”. However, the editor had advised Mr Newman that the mayor made the remarks in context of Grey Power criticism and was therefore speaking specifically of Grey Power members.

Mr Newman has been a regular published letter writer to The Nelson Mail and in several of the letters supplied to the Press Council, his description of Councillor Rainey’s morals and judgment is severe. Mr Newman has not dissociated himself from aspects of the story which link him directly to Grey Power, which name him as a member of the local government committee and which also name him as the author of the 1000-word article described by the newspaper as a ‘diatribe”. In the Press Council’s view linking his views to Grey Power membership was legitimate.

In letters to the editor written by Dan McGuire and Erroll Millar (the other two members of the local government committee of Grey Power) following publication of the articles complained of, neither sought to disassociate their opinions from Grey Power nor distance their criticism of Councillor Rainey and the council from their membership of Grey Power. In fact quite the reverse occurred with both men arguing from a Grey Power perspective.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott.