DALE WARBURTON AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2368

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Dale Warburton (the complainant) complained about an article published in The Dominion Post on November 22, 2013.

The complainant alleged that the article breached Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) and 4 (Comment and Fact) of the New Zealand Press Council Statement of Principles.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The article was the front page lead of the sports section and was headed ”Herbert lost the respect of the players”. It discussed Rikki Herbert’s (the coach) relationship with “players” in the All Whites football team as he ended his tenure as their coach, and “a breakdown in communication” as he left the coaching position.

The article delivered a picture of a team in “shambles” with no clear direction and a coach who was not doing the job as he should.

It concluded with the comment that given the team’s failure to deliver, the coach had “done the sensible thing and walked the plank” but also noted that one of the issues leading up to the eventual outcome was that the coach “was hamstrung by the governing organisation’s inability to organise meaningful warm-up games.”

Complaint
The complainant alleged that the article made a number of allegations without providing any quotes or sources and did not provide any evidence to support the allegations made by the writer. The complainant believed that this prevented the reader from judging the “motivation and authenticity” of any source the writer might have had.

The complainant went on to state that without any quotes or source, the article is essentially an opinion piece without being presented as such, and that neither the paper nor online version were shown as an opinion piece.

He believed that the article did not contain balance to the “unsubstantiated accusations” and the coach did not appear to have been given the opportunity of reply.

Commenting on the editor’s response to his complaint, he did not accept that a reader would know that the article was an opinion piece just because a photo of the writer was included with an article but did accept that the article appeared both in the opinion and football sections on the website.

He also did not agree with the editor’s comment that the practice used by the Dominion Post “since its inception over a decade ago” to use photographs of the writer to denote an opinion piece is one that enabled the public to recognise it as such and believed it unreasonable for a newspaper to expect a reader to ascertain if an article is an opinion piece or not.

The Newspaper’s Response
In reply to the complaint, the editor said the article was clearly an opinion piece, and was shown as such by the standard practice used by the newspaper of including a photograph of the writer.

She stated that the practice has been used by The Dominion Post “since its inception over a decade ago” to denote an opinion piece and was recognised as such by its readers.

As the article was an opinion piece, the requirement for balance did not apply as it would in a news piece. It contained concerns shared by several All Whites players and was presented as such.

The article was a comment piece by the newspaper’s football writer and drew on information he had obtained from relevant sources with knowledge of the coach’s management of the team.

The writer had been the newspaper’s football reporter for three years and has extensive contacts within the All Whites and the Wellington Phoenix teams.

No one had challenged the accuracy of the comments made in the article, she said.

Discussion and Decision
The article discussed the lead up to the coach’s departure and commented on what the writer saw as a breakdown in communication between the coach and team members and the players’ loss of respect for their coach.

Although the newspaper has what it calls a consistent format to denote an opinion piece, not all readers would necessarily recognise it as such.

Notwithstanding the position taken by the editor and the complainant, the council did not accept that the piece was “opinion”. Firstly, adding a photo of the author does not, of itself, make this an opinion piece. Secondly, this is a story based on unsourced facts from which the author draws conclusions. He is not simply expressing his opinion.

The story was written by a person with a long standing relationship with Wellington football and its stakeholders and reviewed the events leading up to the coach’s departure based on information gained from that longstanding association.

The complaints regarding Principles 1 and 4 are not upheld as the article did not breach these Principles.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.