COMPLAINT AGAINST THE WEEKEND SUN

Case Number: 2549

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Weekend Sun

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. A complaint has been made in relation to a print story published by The Weekend Sun (TWS) on 8 July 2016 titled “College calls for clarity”. The complainant (A) is a relative of an overseas student expelled by Tauranga Boys College (TBC) following the student having admitted smoking cannabis away from the school and out of school hours.

2. A says the story breaches Principle 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance).

Background

3. The “College calls for clarity” piece followed an online story published a week before bySunlive (an outlet with which TWS is associated) titled “College caned over expulsions”. TheSunlive story covered a recent High Court decision finding that TBC had acted unlawfully in expelling A’s relative along with other overseas students involved in the cannabis incident. Basically the High Court found that the students could only be expelled under the provisions of the Education Act. There had been no breach of the Act in this instance. Contracts purportedly signed between the students and TBC under which the students agreed “not to use [illegal drugs]” were unenforceable.

4. The TWS print story referred to the conundrum TBC and other schools said they faced as a result of the High Court ruling. Schools had understood they were responsible for overseas students “24/7”. TBC had promoted this responsibility when marketing its services overseas, The rhetorical question, according to TBC’s principal, is “what rights [do schools] have when international students breach school rules and the laws of the land?”.

5.The “point of contention”, according to the story, is the ruling that the Education Act did not assist TBC since schools do not have jurisdiction over students outside school hours.

6. The story proceeded to quote remarks from TBC’s principal referring to the difficulty schools now have as to the extent of their powers when supervising overseas students. The principal referred to the “waters being muddied”. The principal was reported as saying that it was his decision “[not to] abdicate responsibility to teach both domestic and international students that their actions have consequences”. The principal was also reported as saying he would continue to “play hard ball”. The school would “use all means legally available in managing this very significant societal issue. [It] would use the High Court decision to guide [its] future actions should a similar situation occur”. Guidance would be sought from New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Schools International Education Business Association.


The Complaint

7. A is most critical of the story. He claims “it is entirely made up” and is “pure fiction”. A claims the TBC principal “terrorised” his family and others.

8. A says TBC and its principal were entirely wrong in treating his nephew and the other affected students in the way it did. TBC’s “illegal action” was compounded by the lengths it went to in opposing investigations by the International Education Appeal Authority (IEAA) , and later by filing judicial review proceedings in the High Court. A says such actions by the school were entirely inappropriate. The associated costs have been enormous.

9. A says, further, that he students had not broken any New Zealand laws. Nor did they breach any TBC rules. A takes particular issue with the statement in the story that the High Court’s decision is “contentious”.

10. All in all A says the story is unbalanced, TWS having uncritically reported TBC’s principal’s view.

The Response

11. The Weekend Sun does not accept that the complaint is valid. TWS says that the story set out what the High Court decision meant for TBC. TWS says that the story was a “reasoned and fair follow up to the Court decision”. TWS says that the fact that A does not agree with the school does not make the story “wrong”.

12. The newspaper points to the earlier Sunlive piece which covered A’s views. It also refers to its offer to publish a follow up letter from A. A accepted that offer but TBC chose not to print the letter because it considered A’s comments to be defamatory.

The Decision

13. The Council does not agree with A. It does not regard the story as being fiction. The story, while sympathetic to TBC, concentrated on the issues for schools following the Court’s finding. The question is whether there is any way schools can lawfully supervise their international students out of school hours. The question has yet to be answered in the affirmative.

14. If the Council has a concern it relates to the “point of contention” reference. This suggests the law is still somewhat unclear or the decision controversial. The Council has read the High Court judgment (TBC v IEAA [2016] NZHC 1381). The Court’s findings are clear in that the school had no jurisdiction of act as it did. The affected students were dealt with wrongly. Nonetheless the story’s thrust was directed at schools’ treatment of overseas students from now on. The “point of contention element” did not by itself result in the story breaching Principle 1.

15. There is no question, in the Council’s view, that A bears considerable animosity towards the school and its principal. Needless to say A’s strong disagreement with the school’s action and the reported views of its principal does not mean the story breached Principle 1 either.

16. The Council notes finally that TWS was not required to publish A’s letter. Editors retain the right not to publish correspondence for any reason.

17. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering tis complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.