Case Number: 888

Council Meeting: JUNE 2002

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Andrew Cooper of Christchurch complained about a front page, lead story in The Press of 12 April 2002, about conditions in his house, where he provides rental accommodation for foreign students.

Under a banner headline 'Students in Squalor', The Press reported that Mr Cooper had "been accused of exploiting Asian students, by cramming up to eight people onto his property, while he sleeps out in the yard". Conditions in the house and the rules imposed by the landlord were described - apparently on the basis of allegations made by an anonymous complainant and former tenant, since the reporter and a photographer from The Press had been denied entry. It was noted that the Tenants' Protection Association Youth Advocate had inspected the house and "found it to be completely unacceptable." The Fire Service was reported as having "investigated the property yesterday and said it had advised the City Council that it was not happy with it". In an adjacent box, The Press carried, under the heading "A Few House Rules", selected extracts from a list of 'Rules for Staying at 1 Chaucer Street' which Mr Cooper obliged prospective tenants to sign before they took up residence.

The next day, Saturday April 13, on an inside local news page, The Press carried a good length piece by the same reporter which gave considerable space to Mr Cooper's rebuttal of the criticism of conditions. "Everyone is very happy here. We sit in a group and put our arms around each other." He said tenants had been "terrified" by the Fire Service and Council investigation. The comments of two tenants were reported: one was "happy with the situation in the house" while the other said "she was not 'bothered much' by the Fire Service visit and that she had had no problems so far" with the conditions. The headline insisted: "Seven in house 'happy'", with the sub-heading "We are a tight family."

Mr Cooper complained to the Press Council on 1 May that the article of 12 April infringed principles of "accuracy, corrections, privacy and photographs." The Press had "misrepresented" the situation in the house. The story, in which "My name, address and other details were released", was "unverified", since the reporter had tried to force the door and consequently not been "welcomed inside." The story was also "completely unbalanced", in that it relied on the testimony of one resident of three years, a sufferer from 'chronic fatigue', a condition she attributed to the house, who lodged her complaint the week she moved out. Mr Cooper attached statements from other tenants telling of their satisfaction with conditions. The departure of two people had resolved all issues of concern to the Fire Service and City Council (with fewer tenants the house did not have to comply with certain fire regulations.) He complained that The Press had failed to respond to his original letter to the editor and that photographs used in association with the article had been taken by the former tenant and reflected a "very temporary situation (about a week)" while suggesting they represented "the usual situation." Accordingly, "The facts pertaining to the photos were manipulated." Mr Cooper noted that TV crews following up on the original report had recognised that the photographs published in The Press no longer reflected conditions at the property and had found nothing on which to base any story of their own.

The editor of The Press responded to the Press Council on 9 May, expressing regret that Mr Cooper's letter had been wrongly filed and had not reached him or senior staff. The reporter who had filed the two stories had assured him that he did not attempt to force Mr Cooper's door. When asked to leave he had done so - knowing that The Press would not tolerate employees attempting to force their way into a private dwelling. Balance had been maintained by citing not only the former tenant but the Tenants' Protection Association, the Fire Service and the City Council. Moreover (the Press Council observes) Mr Cooper had been extensively quoted in the follow-up story the next day. As for the use made of the photographs, the editor contended that one had "plainly shown that overcrowding had forced one of the tenants to live in a screened-off area of the lounge. The fact that this was temporary does not affect the main point of the story - that conditions at the residence had resulted in the intervention of safety authorities".

Attention was also focussed on the newspaper's interpretation of one of Mr Cooper's 'House Rules: "Failure to do specified house cleaning or intentional unfriendliness (ask for details) could result in you being asked to leave." The Press put it as follows: "And displaying any 'intentional unfriendliness' is punishable by eviction" - which the Editor claimed "accurately reflect(ed) the consequences stipulated" in the rules. The Press Council notes that the actual words used by Mr Cooper (as above) were displayed in the adjacent box and that therefore there could be no question of misinterpretation. Mr Cooper also disputed the description of the premises as "dangerous", without qualification, when the Fire Service had used the word more strictly in terms of what could be considered dangerous within the meaning of s. 64 of the Building Act 1961. The Press, in fact, did not use the word "dangerous" in either article although the issue of fire danger had of course been behind the concerns of the local authorities and was traversed in subsequent correspondence. The editor contended that the main point was the "danger posed by that particular dwelling. The Chaucer Street house posed a danger to its occupants and had caused the intervention of the authorities. We would have been negligent had we ignored it."

Mr Cooper supplied testimony from a tenant to the effect that The Press reporter turned Mr Cooper's door-handle but was barred from entry by a security lock. Mr Cooper also argued that the authorities had not said the house was "overcrowded" - but neither had The Press. He thought the newspaper should have reported the evolving positions of the Fire Service and City Council as tenants left the house and numbers came down to levels at which different regulations applied; an apology was due.

The Press Council, however, believes that the key issues are: were the stories of 12 and 13 April unfair or unbalanced and whether the facts behind the accompanying photographs were - as Mr Cooper claimed - manipulated.

There is widespread community concern about reports of exploitation of foreign students. In this regard the two stories responded to an important issue. A specific case in which a cogent set of complaints had been laid against a landlord was examined against the reaction of the responsible authorities. The complaint also raised an especially sensitive issue - that young Asians may have find it hard to question authority in situations of this kind. All points of view were covered. The Press Council could detect nothing in the two articles which was factually incorrect. The differences between Mr Cooper and The Press were essentially over matters of interpretation and none of them influenced the argument one way or the other. Mr Cooper's contention that the facts behind the photographs had been manipulated was not borne out by the wording used in the article. He claimed that the use of the photographs implied that an earlier situation - in which he lived for a time in a tent and a blanket was erected in the lounge as a partition to provide privacy for an extra tenant - still pertained. The Press, however, had reported accurately: "Landlord Andrew Cooper has been living in a tent. At one stage Mr Cooper partitioned off a lounge". The Press Council does not find evidence of lack of fairness, balance or of manipulation.

Mr Cooper's complaints in this regard are not upheld.

The Press Council also turned its attention to the headline - 'Students in Squalor'. Mr Cooper wrote that the inference that conditions were squalid was an expression of opinion which was not supported by the views of neighbours, tenants or the City Council. The editor accepted that there was no evidence that the house was dirty. He contended however that 'squalor' also signified wretched or unacceptable qualities and cited in this regard having one bathroom for eight people, one kitchen for eight tenants all doing their own cooking, over-crowding etc. The Press Council believes that the use of the word 'squalor' in the headline implied that the students were living in filthy or loathsome conditions. The headline did not reflect the gist of the story; the word was not justified.

The Press Council accordingly upholds Mr Cooper's complaint on this point.