ANNE-MAREE MCDOUGALL AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2226

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Schools, Identification of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Anne-Maree McDougall lodged a complaint regarding an article published by the New Zealand Herald citing Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance.

Ms McDougall’s complaint is not upheld.

Background
The New Zealand Herald published an article on 6 October 2011 under the heading “School helps pay head’s Koru membership”.

The article was one in a number of articles relating to Mercury Bay Area School and it commenced with reference to a previous incident at the school that had received wide publicity.

The article predominantly covered issues relating to expenses claimed by the principal and Board of Trustee’s chairperson. The expenses relating to the principal were a $180.50 contribution to a Koru Club membership and reimbursement of fuel to attend conferences and to look at other school’s gyms.

Staff were said to be frustrated with expenses like this being claimed, while their own budgets had been slashed, though the board was noted as disputing the said budget cuts.

The article noted the school had experienced problems that resulted in it being placed under limited statutory management for a short period of time.

A Ministry of Education group manager was quoted saying that a principal’s expenses were a matter between the principal and the board of trustees. The principal would need to take into account “whether the spending benefited student outcomes, represented best value for money, could be justified to a taxpayer or parent, and the public reaction if it appeared in the media.”

Towards the end of the article it was noted that “The Whitianga school was cleared of a number of complaints this year, by a statutory manager who left last month, but Ms Moroney [Labour MP] said she was continuing to receive complaints from parents concerned about the school management.”

Complaint
Ms McDougall, who is both a staff member and a parent of children at the school, believes that the article breaches the principles of fairness and balance by the highlighting of the previous incident, and believes that this is “highly inflammatory”. She believes that by using this information in the article, it was a deliberate attempt to influence the reader.

She also believes that in talking about disgruntled staff, the article does not reflect what she knows is happening at the school. She went on to state that she believes that the newspaper has shown a definite bias against the school.

Ms McDougall believes that the article appears to speak for all staff at the school, and that this is not correct.

Response from New Zealand Herald
The deputy editor of the New Zealand Herald does not accept that the article breached any of the principles cited by Ms McDougall.

He noted that this was one of a number of articles relating to what was happening at the school and that the newspaper did make every attempt to verify the information including requesting an interview with the principal which was declined. The school did send responses by e-mail and these were incorporated into the story.

He said that while it was clear that the principal and the school have their supporters, it was equally clear that there were members of the school community that held different views and these views had been aired formally and discussed informally.

The newspaper offered to print a letter to the editor from Ms McDougall and the offer of an interview with the principal was an open one.

Discussion
The article is one that covers various issues regarding the school and is one in an ongoing number of articles. The information in the article contains information that is factual and not denied by Ms McDougall.

Ms McDougall takes offence at the repeated use of the previous incident at the school and also that the article purports to speak for all staff at the school.

The headline clearly states the intent of the article and the information relating to the previous incident is in the context of issues relating to parental dissatisfaction over what is occurring at the school, which is also shown in the comments from the Labour MP who states there are still ongoing parental complaints.

The Council would like to note that the use of the previous incident as a lead in to the article seems to be inflammatory with little relevance to the content of the article and could be said to have been given undue emphasis at the beginning of an article that related to expense claims. Repeated publication of a past incident can be counter-productive to a school community that is seeking to move on from past problems.

It is also important to note that the expense claims noted in the article were legitimate ones and payment of them was properly authorized by the Board of Trustees.

The newspaper is clear in stating “The Herald understands that staff at the school are frustrated with expenses like this being claimed while complaining that their own budgets have been slashed”. The article does not state this as fact, but rather as a belief based on information received.

Some Council members agreed with Ms McDougall's claim that the paper's "staff at the school are frustrated with expenses" was too broad, and that the paper should have indicated whether this information came from a number of staff members. The Council members felt that consultation with the Board of Trustees, and with the principal via email, was insufficient to justify a sweeping statement about staff frustration.

But overall the Council did not support this point sufficiently to uphold the ground of fairness.

The principal and Ms McDougall have been given the opportunity by the newspaper to have their say and this offer is an ongoing one.

This complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.