COMPLAINT AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2395

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Names Suppression Of
Schools, Identification of
Unfair Coverage
Behaviour of Journalists

The complainant alleges a breach of Principle 1 of the Press Council principles. Principle 1 requires accuracy, fairness and balance in publications.
Although complaint relates to an article published by the Herald on Sunday on June 1, 2014, and to some extent to earlier articles on the same subject-matter, the complainant confines the complaint to her contact with a journalist on May 31, 2014.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
In January 2014 the New Zealand Teachers Disciplinary Council formally censured the complainant (a head mistress and classroom teacher) for serious misconduct and cancelled her registration as a teacher. The misconduct related to the complainant’s relationship with a student with whom she was in contact at the school where she taught, at a time when the complainant was suffering from significant mental health issues. All parties, including the complainant, agreed that her conduct amounted to emotional manipulation and psychological abuse of the student.
The Tribunal declined to publish its decision in a form that would identify the parties to the case. The complainant later asked for the name suppression to be lifted, but the other party (or parties) objected and suppression remains in place. For that reason, the Press Council decided not to identify the complainant in this case.
The Herald on Sunday appears to have reported on the case on several occasions, both before and after the Tribunal hearing but the article relevant to this complaint was published immediately after the complainant appeared on a TV3 programme on May 28, 2014. The article largely concerns the reaction of the student’s mother to that appearance.

The Complaint
The complainant complains that the journalist in question

a. Although the television appearance was three days earlier, left it until 6 pm on the day before publication to contact her for comment. She was then unwilling to tell the complainant enough about the content of the article to enable meaningful comment.
b. Refused to meet her that evening to view the material that the complainant wished to present, putting personal expedience before journalistic integrity by saying she needed to get home
c. Refused to consider delaying publication of the article until she had had time to consider the complainant’s material.
During the course of the complaint process, the complainant also complained that one of the theme tags for the online version of the article was “crime”. She had neither been accused nor convicted of any criminal behaviour.

The Herald on Sunday response
The editor of the Herald on Sunday, Miriyana Alexander, said that the journalist had interviewed the complainant at some length and “we believe we fairly and accurately reported those key points from the interviews that were relevant to the story”. She explained that the bulk of the reporting of the story was done on Saturday May31. She acknowledged, and apologised for, the late approach to the complainant but said that the reporter who had her contact details had left the paper and the country. As soon as Ms Alexander became aware that no contact had been made, she suggested attempting to contact the complainant though her parents, and this was how contact was made.
The contact consisted of two telephone conversations with the journalist, one of 25 minutes and one of 27 minutes. The complainant asked the journalist to consider material that, in the complainant’s view, supported her beliefs about the motivation of the student’s family in lodging the complaint and in their subsequent comments to the media. In Ms Alexander’s opinion, that material was irrelevant to the charges considered by the Tribunal and reported by the Herald on Sunday. The published article reported the complainant’s statements made on the television programme and otherwise reflected the Tribunal findings.
Ms Alexander later advised that the “crime” tag had been added to the story in error by an online content loader and was removed as soon as she became aware of it.

Discussion
It is unfortunate that the recordings of the two conversations of May 31, 2014 are of poor quality and it is only possible to hear one side of the conversation. They have therefore been disregarded for the purposes of this assessment. This means that it is not possible to assess how much the reporter told the complainant about the content of the proposed article. However both parties agree that the conversations were mostly about the material that the complainant wanted the reporter to view.
It is clear that the complainant’s main concern is her perception that she stands accused of a sexual relationship with her student or at least of grooming her for a sexual relationship. She denies that either is the case. The Tribunal decision mentions emotional manipulation and psychological abuse, and provides examples of both. It does not mention or cite examples of sexual contact or suggest that grooming took place. The complainant has supplied a copy of an email from the student’s mother which appears to confirm that the relationship was not a sexual one.
It is also clear that although the complainant directs her complaint to the behaviour of the journalist, the June 1 article is very relevant to the complaint. If the complainant had not been concerned about the content of the article, there would have been no complaint. She refers to “innuendo” and “implication” in support of her view that it effectively accuses her of criminal conduct.
The article consists almost entirely of a report of an interview with the mother of the student and quotes her extensively. There is no suggestion that the quotations are inaccurate. There is very little editorial comment, and it is confined mostly to statements of fact. Only one sentence reflects the journalist’s conversation with the complainant. This apparent imbalance is not unreasonable, since the article was written in the context of the May 28 TV programme, in which the complainant put forward her views at some length.
Ms Alexander has satisfactorily explained the delay in contacting the complainant for comment, and has also apologised for it. The complainant made the point that the Herald on Sunday had probably archived her telephone number and in any event had several ways of contacting her. It was one of these ways that was in fact used to make contact.
The remaining question, therefore, is whether the journalist ought to have seen the material offered by the complainant before completing her article. The complainant’s view is that it confirms that her relationship with the student was not a sexual one and also sheds light on the mother’s motivation for making the remarks reported in the article. However at no time did the article state or imply that the relationship was a sexual one. It uses the term “inappropriate relationship” which is the term used by the Tribunal in its decision. It also refers to “obsessing over” and “targeting” the student. None of these necessarily imply a sexual motive. In addition, it is difficult to see the relevance of the mother’s possible motives in making statements which the complainant obviously considers inaccurate. The decision that the material was irrelevant was one that the journalist could reasonably make, and it did not result in any breach of the Press Council Principles
The use of the “crime” tag on the online article is unfortunate, but has now been remedied and does not appear to have been the responsibility of the Herald on Sunday.
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.