BEV BUTLER AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2296

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Bev Butler complains that the Otago Daily Times has failed to report fully and accurately on a number of issues relating to the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. The Press Council disagrees and does not uphold the complaint.

Complaint
Bev Butler, an anti-stadium campaigner, has filed a three-part complaint against the Otago Daily Times for its treatment of various issues relating to Dunedin’s new stadium. Specifically, the complaint concerns coverage of: the performance of a marketing company hired to raise private sector funds; the past performance of the new chief executive appointed to run the stadium; and the amount of private sector funding raised for stadium construction.

Relating to the first part of her complaint, Ms Butler sent a press release to the newspaper in September 2012 releasing details of a contract and payments between a marketing company and the Carisbrook Stadium Trust. The contract required the marketing company to raise private sector funding for the stadium. She had obtained the information over a period of months using official information requests.

Ms Butler claimed the marketing company had produced little of value and questioned the role of the new stadium chief executive who had signed the contract in his previous role as chief executive of the Carisbrook Stadium Trust. The contract lasted from 2007 to 2009 but was terminated early with a further sum in settlement.

She complained that the Otago Daily Times’ report of 7 September 2012 focused on the timing of her release of the information – in the week that the new stadium chief was appointed – not the issues she raised. She said the only comments reported from the other key players were to do with her ‘timing’. She asked for an apology for the newspaper’s handling of the information she had sent.

She said the contract left ratepayers exposed to further claims by the marketing company. It had taken 14 months to get the documents she requested, necessitating a complaint to the Ombudsman and threat of legal action.

The second part of her complaint related to statements from the new chief executive reported by the newspaper that he had no further involvement in the contract’s management after signing. Ms Butler says this is incorrect. She said he was receiving invoices up to a year after the contract was signed.

She asked the newspaper to print the correct information, which she had supplied, but it had not. This she said was in breach of Press Council principles concerning accurate, fair and balanced reporting.

In the third part of her complaint she claimed the newspaper omitted to mention the low level of private sector funding raised for the construction of the stadium. The amount was reported in a PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report on stadium costs for the Dunedin City Council. She said the newspaper’s failure to report this showed lack of balance and accuracy.

The Newspaper’s Response
Otago Daily Times deputy editor Barry Stewart rejected Ms Butler’s accusations of unbalanced reporting. “There has been much public debate over the Dunedin stadium project since it was first mooted in 2004. The Otago Daily Times has published literally hundreds of articles, letters, opinion pieces and features on the stadium during the years since. Many of the issues raised by Ms Butler have been in the public domain for some time.”

He said Ms Butler has had a largely open forum to express her views in the newspaper and will continue to have that opportunity. But it was the newspaper’s right to decide which stories and written and how they are presented.

He said the article dealing with the release of Ms Butler’s information about the marketing company contract gave all parties the opportunity to respond. He rejected her complaint that the report had not covered the issues she raised, saying most of the front page coverage dealt with the information she uncovered. However in their responses the Dunedin mayor and the stadium chief executive chose to focus on the timing of her release of the information. The reporter went back to Ms Butler for reaction to some of the comments made by the mayor.
Mr Stewart said the reporter had accurately reported Ms Butler’s information about ‘imprudent spending’ and others’ reaction to it.

The newspaper could not substantiate her claim that the Carisbrook Stadium Trust information had only been released after a threat of prosecution.

On the second part of her complaint, he said views about the management of the contract “show a fair degree of interpretation, often seemingly depending on one’s own view of the stadium”. He rejected suggestions that the newspaper’s coverage had been unbalanced.

As to the third aspect of the complaint, he said the newspaper did not have any hidden agenda over funding issues. “We provided comprehensive, fair and balanced coverage of the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report.” Mr Stewart provided the Press Council with a file of stories about the stadium, including its coverage of the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report and articles about private funding for the stadium.

Discussion
The Forsyth Barr Stadium, completed in 2011, remains a contentious issue in Otago, particularly in regard to the level of ratepayer funding used to pay for it. Therefore it’s an important story for the Otago Daily Times.

Ms Butler was disappointed at the handling of her press release by the newspaper, but the reporter would not have been doing his job if he had not taken the issues contained in her release to the parties involved. His story fairly reflects their views along with those of Ms Butler and provides the balance the Press Council would expect to see.

On the question of the stadium chief executive’s on-going involvement in the marketing company contract, the newspaper on 7 September 2012 published Ms Butler’s reservations about the “business competence” of the chief executive based on his signing of the contract. It put her claims to him and published his comments. As to details of his on-going involvement in payments, the Council accepts that this is a matter of interpretation and likely continuing source of disagreement for pro and anti-stadium groups. The Otago Daily Times has the right to determine what and how it covers issues. The Press Council does not find the newspaper’s coverage in this respect to be inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced.

Conclusion
For the reasons outlined above, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.