CHRISTINE AND DOUG BANKS AGAINST THE GREYMOUTH STAR

Case Number: 2563

Council Meeting: MARCH 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Greymouth Evening Star

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Christine and Doug Banks complain about items published by the Greymouth Star on February 2, 4, 8 and 20, 2017, and refer also to letters to the editor. The complaint is mainly of a breach of Press Council Principle 1, concerning accuracy, fairness and balance, but Principles 2, 6, 10 and 12 are also cited

2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.

Background

3. For many years Mr and Mrs Banks have been in dispute with the Grey District Council over matters to do with the lease of their property at Blaketown. There has been protracted and expensive litigation, in which Mr and Mrs Banks were ultimately unsuccessful, and the matter has been extensively reported by the Greymouth Star. Mr and Mrs Banks have paid the amount of rent that was in dispute but were left with substantial court orders for costs. The Grey District Council then commenced bankruptcy proceedings against them.

4. On February 2, 2017, the Greymouth Star published a short item reporting on the Grey District Council’s decision to permit Mr and Mrs Banks to transfer the lease of their property. The item also reported on the Council’s decision to request a consequential variation of the bankruptcy application that was to be heard the following day.

5. On February 3 the High Court heard the application and Mr and Mrs Banks were declared bankrupt, but with a period of two weeks before the order would take effect to allow them to attempt to make payment of the outstanding costs.

6. On February 4, the Greymouth Star reported the outcome of the bankruptcy application. The article referred to an outstanding debt of $44,000 in rental payments when in fact the outstanding debt was made up entirely of litigation costs. Mrs Banks complained to Paul Madgwick, the editor of the Greymouth Star, who responded by email on February 8. He said “I unreservedly apologise for this error, which will be corrected on the front page of today’s edition. I can further assure you that this was an honest mistake in what has been a very long, protracted and legally complex issue and the reporter simply misunderstood the nature of the court case.”

7. In the meantime, on February 7, the Greymouth Star published a letter from Mr and Mrs Banks setting out their views on the bankruptcy proceedings and concluding with their expectation of an apology from theGreymouth Star.

8. On February 8, 2017, the Greymouth Star published a further item on the bankruptcy proceedings, acknowledging and correcting, but not apologising for, the error in its previous report.

9. Mr and Mrs Banks were unable to pay all of the outstanding debt for costs and the bankruptcy order took effect on February 17. On February 20 theGreymouth Star published a further article reporting on the bankruptcy, and on February 22 it published a further letter from Mr and Mrs Banks setting out their view of their position.

The Complaint

10. Mr and Mrs Banks complain about the inaccuracy in the February 4 article, but they also complain on grounds of fairness and balance. They say “we feel we have been severely harassed by three prominent front page news items appearing within just days of one another, all with heading intended to supposedly factually inform the readers about our bankruptcy; how many times is this necessary and on the front page, even if there was some public interest?” They say they were not offered an opportunity to comment.

11. Mr and Mrs Banks also cite Principle 2 (privacy), though this may be an error, as their concerns under this heading appear to relate more to Principle 4 (comment and fact) when they say that the published items should have been, but were not, based on accurate facts.

12. On Principle 6, they say the headline did not accurately convey the nature of the article as an apology and correction.

13. On Principle 10, they say that the Greymouth Star has shown, if not a conflict of interest, a strong bias against them and in favour of the Grey District Council, noting that the Mayor is a major shareholder in the publication.

14. Finally, Mr and Mrs Banks find the apology and correction offered by Mr Madgwick inadequate and “nothing more than another news item to inflict harm against us over a matter of days’. (Principle 12)

The Response

15. Mr Madgwick noted the long-running nature of the litigation, that the Greymouth Star had reported on it over the years and that it had also published many letters (frequently from the complainants, with responses from the Grey District Council) on the subject. It had not reported on many of the judgments in the protracted proceedings, and had eventually closed the correspondence on the issue. Accordingly it denies any suggestion of harassment.

16.The article of February 2 was simply a report of a public resolution from a Council meeting, without any “colouring”, after the Council had run a public notice advertising the resolution.

17. The report of February 4 was of the bankruptcy hearing and was of considerable public interest. Mr Madgwick considers theGreymouth Star had a public duty to report on the developments in the long-running dispute. He acknowledges the error over the outstanding debt and says that a correction and full explanation was later run, on p1 to give equal prominence. He says this made it very clear that while the overall basis of the court story was right, “the $44,000 was described incorrectly”.

18. In general, Mr Madgwick says the Greymouth Star runs blanket coverage of all court cases, many on the front page. Comment is not sought from parties to the cases, and the report covers only what was said in court. This was the treatment accorded to Mr and Mrs Banks’ case.

 

The Decision

  • 19. Mr and Mrs Banks have complained of breaches of several of the Press Council principles, but mainly of Principles 1 and 12. To cover the other complaints briefly:
    • There do not appear to be any privacy issues (Principle 2) in this complaint. If Principle 2 has been cited in error and the complaint is of a breach of Principle 4, then it needs to be noted that there is no expression of comment or opinion in any of the articles, and Principle 4 does not apply.
    • Principle 6 requires that headlines should accurately convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. The article in question was mostly about the costs for which Mr and Mrs Banks had been found liable and accordingly it was quite accurate to head it “Blaketown couple bankrupted for court costs”. It is appreciated that Mr and Mrs Banks consider the correction was given insufficient prominence, but this is a matter for consideration under Principle 1 or 12, not Principle 6. There is also a complaint that the headline was inaccurate in stating that the couple had been bankrupted when the bankruptcy order had not yet taken effect, but the Press Council does not consider this inaccurate – the adjudication of bankruptcy had been made.
    • Mr and Mrs Banks say, in relation to Principle 10, that the Greymouth Star has shown, if not a conflict of interest, a strong bias against them and in favour of the Grey District Council. There is no discernible conflict of interest (and it is noted that in relation to a similar complaint considered by the Press Council in 2014 it was given an assurance that in view of the Mayor’s shareholding iaan theGreymouth Star, the relationship with him is “at more than arm’s length”). Questions of bias are considered under Principle 1.

20. Setting aside for the time being the question of inaccuracy, the main issues in this complaint have to do with fairness and bias. There was clearly a degree of public interest in the final stages of the long-running and costly litigation between the complainants and the Grey District Council, and the Press Council finds that it was appropriate, and neither unfair nor biased, to report on them. The first two articles were straightforward and factual accounts firstly of the Grey District Council’s decision to agree to transfer the lease and its late application for a variation of the bankruptcy application and secondly of the hearing of that application and its outcome. The two articles were on quite different aspects of the dispute – one was on the Grey District Council decision and the other on the outcome of the bankruptcy application. Nor did fairness require theGreymouth Star to seek comments from any of the parties to the litigation, given the factual nature of the reports.

21. The third article was published in response to the complaint of inaccuracy. While its contents were clearly not as Mr and Mrs Banks had hoped or expected, there is no unfairness or bias apparent. In the first paragraph there is an acknowledgement and correction of the inaccuracy, and the rest of the article is a factual explanation of the debt owed by Mr and Mrs Banks, including an acknowledgement that they had paid the part of the debt attributable to unpaid (and disputed) rent.


 

 

22. The final article in the series appeared after the bankruptcy order took effect. Once again, it appears fair and unbiased, with accurate reporting of the facts and with comment from the various parties involved in the litigation.

23. The Press Council, is of the view that the four articles form a natural sequence of reports on a matter of public interest as it developed and cannot be seen as a form of harassment or unfairness.

 

24. There remains the question of the undoubted inaccuracy about the nature of the debt, and Mr Madgwick’s response to the complainants about it. While the Press Council accepts that there was a genuine error on the part of the reporter, and that the error is understandable in the context of the intricate and technical nature of the proceedings, it is surprised that Mr Madgwick did not take steps to ensure the report was accurate before it was published. He was familiar with the history of the controversy, a key point of which was that Mr and Mrs Banks had repaid all debt attributable to unpaid rent, and he was most certainly familiar with Mr and Mrs Banks’ sensitivities.

25. However, once the inaccuracy was drawn to Mr Madgwick’s attention, he took immediate steps to correct it. He checked the facts, emailed Mr and Mrs Banks with an acknowledgement of the inaccuracy and an apology for it, and promised a correction on the front page of the next edition of the Greymouth Star. Contrary to Mr and Mrs Banks’ submission, he did not offer to publish an apology.

26. The obligation under Principle 12 is to correct significant errors with fair prominence, and this Mr Madgwick did. An apology and /or right of reply are generally regarded as a matter for editorial discretion in all but the most extreme cases, and the Council does not consider this a case where a published apology was necessary. It notes that Mr and Mrs Banks were given a right of reply in that their letter, restating and summarising their views, was published very shortly afterwards.

Decision

The complaint is not upheld.

 

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Vernon Small and Tim Watkin.