CHRISTINE BANKS AGAINST GREYMOUTH STAR

Case Number: 2410

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Greymouth Evening Star

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Christine Banks’ complaint arises from a series of letters published by the Greymouth Star in October 2014. She does not complain specifically of a breach of one or more of the Press Council principles but says that the Greymouth Star should not have published letters that opened her to “unfair, unbalanced, inaccurate and malicious personal attack” that she could not defend. She also complains about closure of the correspondence and about abridgement of a letter.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
There has been long-running and costly litigation between Mr and Mrs Banks and the Grey District Council over matters to do with leasehold land at Blaketown. From time to time, the Greymouth Star has reported on the dispute and it has also published letters to the editor on the subject.
Mrs Banks’ complaint relates to a series of four letters criticising the Grey District Council and published by the Greymouth Star, beginning with one dated 1 October 2014 from a Peter Balloch. The other three letters were written by Mrs Banks. The Greymouth Star has a practice of referring letters of this kind to the Grey District Council for comment. Alongside the letter from Mr Balloch and two of Mrs Banks’ letters the Greymouth Star published some lengthy comment, in one case from the Mayor and in two from the Chief Executive of the Council. The complaint is largely directed at this comment.
After Mrs Banks’ letter of 10 October, the editor declared the correspondence closed. He did, however, on 11 October, publish a correction to an incorrect statement made by the Mayor in his response to one of Mrs Banks’ letters
Also on 10 October 2014 the Greymouth Star published a letter from a Neil Messenger. This letter criticises Mrs Banks, and despite having earlier declared the correspondence closed the editor published her response on 17 October. Two paragraphs were deleted from this letter before publication.

The Complaint
Mrs Banks complains in general that she has been subjected to personal attacks and has not been allowed to defend herself. She remarks on a potential conflict of interest as the Mayor of Greymouth has a financial interest in the Greymouth Star and on the nature of the public interest in the subject matter of her complaint. Specifically she says:
• A letter she received from the Council after closure of the correspondence confirms that a statement made by the Chief Executive is “dishonest and misleading”. Closure of the correspondence means that she is unable to respond, and the Greymouth Star has not published a correction.
• She had inadequate opportunity to respond to inaccurate comment made by the Mayor on her letter of 8 October 2014 and the Greymouth Star has only published a correction to one of his statements. By closing the correspondence, the Greymouth Star protected the Mayor and Council from public scrutiny.
• Neil Messenger’s letter was factually incorrect and harmful. It should not have been published without seeking a full and proper response. The editor deleted “creditable, factual and public” information from Mrs Banks’ response before publication and did not acknowledge that the letter had been abridged.

• In general, it is unfair to close off correspondence on a long-running issue of substantial public interest involving a large amount of ratepayers’ money. The Greymouth Star has allowed similar issues to run for many years.

In connection with her complaint, Mrs Banks mentions an article published by the Greymouth Star on 9 October 2014, but does not specifically complain about its contents. It has been considered in the context of her general complaint.
The Greymouth Star Response
The editor of the Greymouth Star, Paul Madgwick, makes it plain in his response that he has lost patience with the long-running dispute, describing the October exchange of letters as “letter ping-pong between Mrs Banks and the Council”. He says that over the past 10 years “every letter generates another volley, every council action is met with counter action, on and on and on . . . . Slowly but steadily it wears everyone down to the point where they have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in a never-ending war of words.” He closed the correspondence because it had become tedious and had run its course. In fairness, he allowed her to respond to the letter from Mr Messenger, which was published the day the correspondence was closed.
Mr Madgwick strongly denies any suggestion that he has allowed his editorial judgement to be influenced by the Mayor.
In relation to the complaint of abridgement, Mr Madgwick says that letters to the editor are always subject to abridgement, though this is usually very slight. Over the years, Mrs Banks has enjoyed substantial leeway in terms of length and lack of abridgement. However “I draw the line when a letter outrightly accuses the Mayor and/or council chief executive of lying and questions the judiciary.”

Discussion and Decision
This complaint falls to be considered mainly under Principles 5 and 12 of the Press Council Principles. The relevant part of Principle 5 states that:

Letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest. Abridgement is acceptable but should not distort meaning.

Principle 12 states:

A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.

The Principles relating to fairness and balance are also relevant to some extent.
In this case, the editor of the Greymouth Star has been entirely fair and balanced in referring correspondence for comment. The Grey District Council was invited to comment on Mr Balloch’s and Mrs Banks’ criticisms, and Mrs Banks was invited to respond to Mr Messenger even though the correspondence had been declared closed. There is no evidence of bias towards the Mayor or Council and Mr Madgwick has given an assurance that in view of the Mayor’s shareholding in the Greymouth Star, the relationship with him is “at more than arm’s length”. In addition Mrs Banks’ letters responding to the Council’s comment were published in full. The only real questions for consideration relate to the closure of the correspondence (including the refusal to publish a further correction) and the abridgement of Mrs Banks’ letter of 17 October.
An editor has considerable discretion over letters submitted for publication, especially when deciding whether to publish a letter, publish an abbreviated version or to decline publication. The same applies to a decision to declare correspondence closed. In general, an editor is free to decide when correspondence has run its course, unless it is manifestly unfair to close it. It is noted that the correspondence was closed after the publication of Mrs Banks’ letter of 10 October, without any response from the Council to that letter. If there is any unfairness here, it is unfairness to the Council, not Mrs Banks who had opportunities to respond to all Council comments.
An editor is not responsible for inaccurate statements in letters unless she or he should have known about the inaccuracy. However the inaccurate statement that Mr and Mrs Banks had ceased to pay rent was repeated in the 9 October article, and for that reason it was appropriate to publish a correction once the facts had been established. The other inaccuracies mentioned by Mrs Banks occur only in the comment on her letters, to which she had an adequate opportunity to respond.
It is normal practice for some letters to the editor to appear in abridged form. While the information that the Greymouth Star provides about letters to the editor does not use the word “abridgement”, it makes it clear that letters may be edited at the editor’s discretion because of their content or length. The material edited out of Mrs Banks’ letter consists of examples that illustrate points she is making and is not essential to the argument she puts forward or the general meaning of the letter.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow (Acting Chair), Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.