Case Number: 777

Council Meeting: May 2000

Verdict: Dismissed

Publication: Greymouth Evening Star

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The New Zealand Press Council has rejected a complaint from Doug and Christine Banks of Blaketown against their local paper, the Greymouth Evening Star.

The issue relates to the editor's decision not to publish a letter from the Banks in response to an earlier letter from another correspondent, L M Hawkins.

The council found that while the publication of non-solicited mail was properly an editorial prerogative, the paper might have chosen to publish an abridged version of the Banks' letter, omitting some of the more complicated comment.

It also said that papers need have no fear that, in publishing information about a complaint during the adjudication process, they might influence the outcome. Publication of all or part of the Banks' letter in this case might well have satisfied the complainants.

The complaints dates from February 21 when the Star published the view of L M Hawkins that, in part, asked rhetorically how much money Grey District Council had spent answering requests from Mr and Mrs Banks. The letter said the issue had gone on far too long and must surely be costing ratepayers a fortune.

The paper sought a response from the local council's chief executive, which it published as a footnote.

Mr and Mrs Banks believed they too should have been approached for comment, so after the letter was published, replied. Their letter argued the Hawkins' comments were too personal as well as potentially defamatory and damaging. It called on the editor to apologise publicly for "this slur".

Editor Kit Carson decided not to publish the letter. Angered, the couple approached the paper's management, which, in its responses, supported its editor's decision.

Unhappy, the pair complained to the Press Council. They alleged, among other things, that the letter by L M Hawkins was incorrect, that the district council knew that but hadn't said so, and that the Star was refusing their reply to what they saw as an abusive use of their names.

Mr and Mrs Banks also argued that the newspaper's decision amounted to unrestrained licence to print lop-sided information in order to mislead the public.

Correspondence between the couple and the paper was furnished to the Press Council. These included some strong allegations about the Star from Mr and Mrs Banks, as well a request for their letter to be published in full, along with an apology.

Included in the correspondence that the Council saw was a response from Star manager Mark Dawson saying the paper's legal advice was that the Hawkins' letter wasn't defamatory.

Mr Dawson also said that since they planned to take the matter to the Press Council, no further correspondence on it would be published until the Council had ruled. The paper didn't want to be seen to be attempting to influence its deliberations.

In deciding not to uphold the complaint, the council commented that it wasn't so easily influenced. It repeated its long-held view that publication of non-solicited correspondence remained a proper editorial discretion.

While in an earlier case (Haskell v Evening Post, 1989) it had found that, in fairness, letter writers should be allowed to respond to a strong personal attack, that wasn't the case in this situation.

The Hawkins' letter, it said, amounted to the standard rhetoric often contained in letters to a newspaper.

The Press Council dismissed the complaint.

It took the opportunity, however, to remind complainants and newspaper managements that editors are the proper people to deal with complaints about a newspaper. It said it applauded the practice of most newspaper companies in separating the editorial side of the newspaper from business matters