BRIAN STEEL AGANST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2221

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions

Brian Steel complained that the New Zealand Herald failed to comply with Principle 5 (Headlines and Captions) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in reporting on the finding of the Employment Relations Authority on an unjustifiable dismissal case, brought by a former employee of the Lakes District Health Board. The story was accompanied by the headline “ERA upholds dismissal for taking DVD”.

The Press Council did not uphold the complaint.

Background
On August 10, 2011 the Herald ran a story about a Lakes District Health Board employee who lost his job after taking a DVD from his employer without approval. The story set out the background to the dismissal with emphasis on the low value of the item in question. While there was no doubt the DVD was of little value the Health Board treated the matter as being “more about principle than the cost”. The story referred to the Employment Relation Authority finding that the employee’s dismissal was justified in the circumstances. The story concluded with reference to the fact that in the previous seven months the employee had been given a formal warning [about another matter] and “had been spoken to on several occasions about other incidents”.

The Complaint
Brian Steel said the headline to the Herald article was misleading. Mr Steel said the headline misconstrued the Authority’s findings because the employee “was not sacked because of the theft of the DVD, he was sacked because of a lack of trust by his employer”. Mr Steel said he would not have complained if the headline “had been along the lines of “Hospital Board employee sacked because of lack of trust””. Mr Steel said the Authority’s “judgment is quite specific that [the employee] was not sacked just because of the theft of a DVD”.

Mr Steel had no issue with the story’s content.

The Response
The New Zealand Herald responded by saying the employee was sacked for taking the DVD. The other matters (the previous warning and other adverse incidents) were taken into account in deciding the “punishment” but they were not the reason for the dismissal.

The New Zealand Herald maintained the headline was fair, accurate and balanced.

The Decision
The Council did not agree with Brian Steel.

The Council read the Employment Relation Authority’s decision underpinning the Herald’s story. While the facts were unusual (in the sense it is uncommon for an employee to be dismissed for taking an item of such low value) it was clear from the decision that if the employee had not taken the disk he would not have lost his job. Putting it another way the taking of the DVD was the catalyst for the dismissal. The Authority was at pains to point out that summary dismissal was justified despite the low value of the stolen item. This was the real point of the story.

While Brian Steel was correct when he said the Authority found the Health Board was entitled to dismiss the employee once it could not longer trust him (the employee’s actions in taking the DVD and his responses to the Health Board’s concerns broke that trust) this did not make the headline inaccurate, misleading or unfair.

The complaint was 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.