Case Number: 969

Council Meeting: MARCH 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: North Shore Times Advertiser

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Taste Lack of

North Shore city councillor Andrew Williams wrote the New Zealand Press Council late last year to complain about several reports that had appeared in the local community newspaper, the North Shore Times Advertiser.

At its March meeting, the Press Council decided not to uphold the complaint.

Cr Williams’ ire was roused by a series of items in the Advertiser that referred to “Crunchy The Clown”. He was unhappy at the paper’s handling of his complaint and lodged a complaint with the Council.

Some background: Late last October, the Advertiser had made available to it reports on about 200 meetings held in the Auckland region by Auckland Regional Council about its annual plan. One of those reports said that comments had been shared between ARC officers about North Shore city councillors, “including Crunchy the Clown”. The reports did not identify the person to whom the ARC staffer was referring.

Coincidentally, the man who had been the original Crunchy the Clown – an entertainer who was asked to perform at mall openings, for example – died in Australia a few days later. The paper marked his passing and, in that article, referred again to the anonymously bestowed epithet in the ARC meeting reports.

The matter was alluded to a third time a few weeks later when the Advertiser published a roundup of the previous month’s news.

Cr Williams saw the articles as insulting, misleading and inaccurate. His attempts to get Advertiser editor Ivan Dunn to apologise publicly to all councillors and reveal the “clown’s” identity were unsuccessful.

The councillor then approached the Press Council and argued that the articles were mischief-making as well as casting a slur on the good names and reputations of all North Shore city councillors.

He shared with the Press Council who he believed the “clown” to be and said that he, along with another councillor, had made that identity known to Mr Dunn by email and to an Advertiser reporter at a city council committee meeting. In later correspondence with the Press Council, Cr Williams also implied that “Crunchy’s” identity was made known at a city council meeting.

Despite having this information, the councillor said, the paper had not published it, which left all councillors slurred.

He suggested to the Press Council that Mr Dunn had deliberately protected the council member whom he – Cr Willams – believes to be “Crunchy the Clown” because the pair had a close personal relationship.

In his defence, Mr Dunn provided the Press Council with copies of e-mails he had exchanged with Cr Williams. In one, he says that there was nothing in committee minutes to back the councillor’s statement. He continued: “We do not regard tea-time tittle-tattle as reliable information”.

He also told the council that the paper had checked with two councillors who might have been in a position to know “Crunchy’s” identity. Neither could help.

He said he stood by his decision not to pursue to whom the ARC had been referring because it would publicly humiliate that person and, perhaps, leave the paper open to legal action.

Mr Dunn also stoutly rejected Cr Williams’ claim that a close relationship existed between him and the person that the councillor believed to be the butt of the ARC staff’s humour.

The Press Council understands that, at times, tensions are apt to rise between media outlets and local bodies. Particularly in the run-up to election year, it is not uncommon for local politicians to become more sensitive than usual to reporting by their local newspaper.

In this case, however, some of the information provided to the Press Council indicates that Cr Williams has been unhappy with reporting by the North Shore Times Advertiser for some time. The “Crunchy the Clown” incident seemed to be the straw that broke the councillor’s back.

Nonetheless, the Council cannot fault Mr Dunn’s decision to not accept mere gossip among councillors as to the “clown’s” identity. His caution was understandable given the private checking his staff had done on his behalf and the best practice among journalists that sensitive information needs to be thoroughly checked out.

In an aside, the Press Council suggested that local body politicians who are unhappy with the coverage of themselves or their council should, in the first instance, pick up the phone and discuss the matter with the editor. It said that its experience showed that highly coloured personal invective sent by e-mail – whether from a complainant or a news organisation - rarely improved already tetchy relationships.

The complaint is not upheld.