BOUGAINVILLE LIBRARY TRUST AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2322

Council Meeting: MAY 2012

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy
Misleading
Sensationalism

Lloyd Jones, as chair of the Bougainville Library Trust, a voluntary body which is building and stocking a library in Bougainville, complained that an article published in the Sunday Star-Times on March 24, 2013 was inaccurate, that the retraction or correction the paper agreed to publish was in an inconspicuous position (and contained a further inaccuracy), and that the article continued to appear on the website stuff.

The complaint against Sunday Star-Times is upheld.

The story in Sunday Star-Times, ‘What the Dickens has happened to all our books?’ stated that a container containing more than 5,000 books was being ‘held to ransom by warlords in a remote part of Bougainville’ and attributed a statement to Jones as saying ‘I don’t just know [what happened to the books]’. Jones did know: the container was in Lae, was being cleared through the customs, and was expected to shortly be sent on to Bougainville.

Following publication Jones was in touch with Michael Field who wrote the article (and to whom in an email on March 21 he had explained the situation with the container of books), and with Michael Donaldson, the deputy editor of the paper. They accepted that there had been inaccuracies, which they attributed to the work of sub-editors. Jones and Donaldson agreed on the wording of a correction, with Jones adding ‘All I would ask [is] that it be placed in a reasonably high profile place in the newspaper’.

The correction, headed Clarification, was printed on March 31 on p.6 in a column headed Briefs. Jones suggested it had been ‘buried’; Donaldson responded that ‘research shows the briefs column is the most widely-read part of the paper barring the front page’.

The article also appeared online on stuff. The error about the warlords was picked up at once and before midday on the day of publication was replaced by a phrase about 5000 books falling ‘into a corruption quagmire’, and on 3 April, in response to another email from Jones a further correction was made.

Jones remained unhappy at the length of time the inaccurate story (in its various iterations) had remained on line. It was taken down completely on April 4.

On April 10 Jones wrote his letter of complaint to the Press Council. This was sent to Garry Ferris, the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Star-Times, for his comment and he replied, 19 April, with a full and clear account of the publication of the paper’s exchanges with Jones, an expression of regret for ‘the original error in editing’, and the statement that the paper believed it ‘had handled the original complaint in accordance with the Press Council principles of Corrections, as part of the national newspaper’s commitment to the key plank of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance’.

Discussion
In considering the complaint one must put it in its context. The Bougainville Library project was begun by Lloyd Jones after the worldwide success of his novel Mister Pip, and has successfully sought public support on which it is totally dependent for achieving its aims. The Sunday Star-Times story, as first published, led Jones to think that in misinforming the public it could undermine the whole library project by calling in question the capacity of the Trust to see it through.

The possible repercussions were, thus, serious and not helped by the fact that the story could not be corrected until the next edition of the paper a week later.

It is also a matter for disquiet that ‘in editing’ an error of this magnitude, giving the story a more sensationalist angle, could be introduced. What was intended as factual news became fiction.

These circumstances call in question whether the so-called ‘Clarification’ (and clarification seems an odd heading for the correction of an error of this kind) was given adequate prominence and whether a simple expression of regret for the error conveyed any real appreciation on the paper’s part of how their sub-editors’ change of wording could impact on the Trust project. This was a serious misrepresentation of fact and thus an appropriate correction rather than a clarification was called for.

In respect to the online publication it is clear that some corrections were made as soon as the errors were recognized, though in part this was fortuitous in that Michael Field was rostered on that Sunday in the Sunday Star-Times office and spotted the error straight away. The initial correction, however, introduced a further error and after further correspondence the story was taken down. The sequence and timing of events does suggest that there is room for clarification of the relationship between a source newspaper and stuff when a question of inaccuracy arises.

The complaint is upheld in respect of the errors in the original article and the inadequacy of the correction. It is not upheld in respect of the online publication.

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

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.