DAL MINOGUE AGAINST THE INFORMER

Case Number: 2163

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Informer

Ruling Categories: False Accusation
Politicians
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Dal Minogue of Whitianga complained that The Informer, a Whitianga weekly, had deliberately and unfairly damaged his bid for re-election to the Thames-Coromandel District Council from the Mercury Bay ward. The complaint is not upheld.

On September 21, after voting papers had been distributed, The Informer reported that Mr Minogue had left out the last two paragraphs of an email from the council's chief executive when Mr Minogue distributed copies of the email at an election meeting in Whitianga nine days earlier.

Under the headline, "Cr Minogue's handout: what you didn't get", The Informer published the entire email and invited readers to decide whether the edited version was appropriate.

Mr Minogue complained that the report was full of innuendo, unsubstantiated assumptions and incorrect information that placed him in a bad light. It had wrongly accused him of underhand behaviour and led readers to believe he was dishonest. He said the article did him serious electoral damage and he was voted out of office.

Facts
As a member of the District Council Mr Minogue had asked its chief executive whether there was any truth in an assertion made in an earlier issue of The Informer that ratepayers faced a potential liability in excess of $20 million under a deed for a development relating to Whitianga Waterways if a public sports facility was established there.

The chief executive replied to Mr Minogue by email, saying the assertion showed "a lack of understanding of Council's Development Contributions Policy, the old Reserve Contribution Deed (Deed) and the law."

The email ran to five paragraphs and Mr Minogue forwarded it in full to the editor of The Informer, Gerry Church.

Three weeks later The Informer published it in response to Mr Minogue's edited version.

Its report, written by Mr Church, stated that when Mr Minogue was asked why he had omitted the final two paragraphs he maintained they didn't make any difference and said, "It was to make everything fit on one page..."

Mr Church reported that, "The handout has 8 linear centimetres of blank space, more than enough to include the excluded paragraphs." The final missing paragraph, he wrote, "would appear to be quite relevant to the ratepayer liability issue, especially the first sentence." (That sentence read: "Having noted the above it is fair to say that left unmanaged Council could have accumulated a reasonably significant liability.")

The Complaint
Mr Minogue complained to the editor that The Informer's readers would not have been able to decide the issue for themselves because the information provided was "peppered with editor's comments numbering seven in all, which were full of innuendo, unsubstantiated assumptions and snide remarks....."

As a result of the report, he said, local radio stations began running news items and comment claiming that he had "doctored", "altered" and "falsified" the chief executive's email. Mr Church had been interviewed on radio to give credence to those claims.

The Editor's Response
Mr Church replied that he had been fair to all candidates. "If any other candidate had done what you did I would have written about them as well," he told the complainant.

He said he had reported the facts given to him by the complainant, by the developer and the council chief executive.

He was "almost flattered" that Mr Minogue blamed his election loss on one article in The Informer but he cited several other issues that he believed explained voters' rejection of almost the entire previous council.

The Decision
Newspapers ought to be scrupulously fair to candidates at an election, especially when voting has begun in a postal ballot. But that does not preclude fair and accurate reports that may be damaging to a particular candidate.

We are unable to say whether the report may have been damaging to Mr Minogue's campaign, though we note that virtually the entire council was not re-elected. The email from the District Council chief executive was in sympathy with his view of the issue and it is a matter of opinion whether the final two paragraphs altered its thrust.

The chief executive believed a significant liability to ratepayers would not arise so long as the Whitianga Waterways deed was subject to "proactive and assertive management on the part of the council".

The issue pivoted on whether readers understood that phrase and believed it. Mr Church did not draw confidence from it and left his readers in no doubt of his view.

But he had given them an email exchange that they could read for themselves in full.

His report included Mr Minogue's explanation for editing the hand-out. It also mentioned that Mr Minogue's extract ended with an ellipsis, a fact that mitigates any implication of a dishonest intent.

The Informer's story was aggressive and probably confusing for readers not already familiar with the issue but the Press Council can find no breaches of accuracy or fairness.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.