Case Number: 997

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2004

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Wainuiomata News

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Brenda Ryan has complained that an article about a soccer brawl published in Capital Coast Newspapers’ Wainuiomata News breached standards requiring accuracy and clear distinction between comment and fact. Mrs Ryan further complains that the treatment of her subsequent letter to the newspaper breached standards requiring accuracy, distinction between comment and fact, and the correction of errors. The complaint is part upheld.

The July 15 article, headlined “Violence mars soccer match”, is a clearly personal account of an incident by the newspaper group’s sports reporter. The piece is written in a colourful style, but takes pains not to attribute overall blame. The incident is introduced with the carefully chosen words: “All of a sudden a brawl ensued”.

What the writer does impart subjectively, is from his own observations: that before the game a player from the home side called the visiting team, “the boxing team”, and that, in the melee, a named home player (with an addendum the given name is not believed to be real) set upon, and bloodied, the referee.

The published, abridged letter from Mrs Ryan accused the writer of “appalling” reporting and untruths, saying he had jumped to conclusions, omitted relevant information, made untrue statements, and given an impression that the [Wainuiomata] women’s team was “made up of violent thugs”. Published on July 22, the letter was footnoted with a defence from the reporter that included: “Shame on you for even attempting to condone this, whether your side was the less guilty party or not”. Below this, was a further news story, reporting a Capital Soccer fining and banning of evicted players, and the placement of both sides on good behaviour bonds.

Capital Coast Newspapers’ group editor Peter Bartlett vigorously defends the report as proper and calls the complaint baseless.

For the following reasons the complaint in respect to the article is not upheld. The article was clearly a first-hand account, its introductory paragraphs observational and leading into the unambiguous statement: “I was at the game”. Though far from dispassionate, the piece in no part attempts to get to the bottom of the affair or apportion blame. Rather, it expresses “shock” at violence seen through the eyes of the journalistic observer.

Mrs Ryan’s anguish at the lack of description about the origin of the brawl was understandable but nevertheless the piece was merely expressing horror at an example of sports violence.

This part of the complaint is not upheld.

The treatment of the letter, however, is a different matter. In it, Mrs Ryan takes umbrage at the reporter’s failure to inquire about the origins of the fight, apparently to show the culpability of the other side. In her complaint, she offers concerns about her letter’s abridgement, saying the published version omitted comments about a Wainuiomata player’s inability to defend herself against “swinging fists” and “many punches” being thrown by the other team’s players. Assuming the paper’s intent was to excise comment attributing blame, most of the cuts might be judged legally wise. But the newspaper loses for editing out Mrs Ryan’s comment, “I do not condone Karen’s behaviour” then severely criticising her for “attempting to condone” violence. The omission and the subsequent attack on Mrs Ryan cannot be justified. This part of the complaint is upheld.

Arising out of the complaint, the council feels obliged to make further comment about the manner in which Mr Bartlett, in his complaint correspondence, rounded on Mrs Ryan. So obscene and abusive were the words used by Mr Bartlett, that the Council took the unusual step of editing his reply before forwarding it to Mrs Ryan. The action was to no avail – Mr Bartlett had forwarded a copy of the original to her, with all the offensive language intact. The language was, to say the least, abusive, offensive and unprofessional. Mr Bartlett has recently accepted a new position, editing a community newspaper in Australia, but the Council must emphasise the unacceptability and unprofessionalism of using such language in dealing with readers. No complainant should have to put up with such abuse. As a footnote, the reporter has also left the publication for an Australian appointment.