DALE WILLIAMS AGAINST TAUPO TIMES

Case Number: 2069

Council Meeting: MARCH 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Taupo Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Editorial Freedom
Offensive Language

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint from Dale Williams, Mayor of Otorahanga District, against the Taupo Times over an editorial published in the Taupo Times on November 28, 2008.

Background
Kris Wills, editor of the Taupo Times, wrote an editorial to accompany an article about participation in the Top Town competition, between the Unison Taupo Lakers and a team from Otorohanga.
In an email sent by Mr Williams to Mr Wills on December 1, Mr Williams served notice that he would make a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and to the Minister of Broadcasting, in response to the editorial in the Taupo Times. He found Mr Wills’ comments ‘deeply insulting to the Otorohanga District’ and referred to ‘character assassination, insults and petty abuse’ such as had appeared in the article.
Mr Williams further indicated that many Taupo residents and colleagues had also expressed outrage at ‘your rather juvenile attempts at self-gratification’ which he found at variance with the good relationship that he claimed existed between Otorohanga and Taupo. Mr Williams requested an immediate written apology and a printed retraction from Mr Wills, who had previously been an Otorohanga resident, and the Taupo Times newspaper.
Mr Wills replied to Mr Williams by email on 2 December. He painted the editorial as ‘an attempt to spark a friendly rivalry in the light of the top town event.’ He claimed that the rivalry was between his publication and Otorohanga’s Waitomo News. He saw the article as ‘good natured ribbing’ that was part of Kiwi culture.
While he acknowledged Mr Williams’ right to lay a complaint (and directed him to the Press Council to do so) he stated that the editorial was clearly labelled as opinion, and that the Press Council has upheld the right of editors to write opinion columns in the past. His email concluded that he wished Otorohanga ‘all the best in the Top Town, but obviously not as much as Taupo.’

The Complaint
Mr Williams brought his complaint to the Press Council on December 2. The complaint consisted of his forwarding of the emails between himself and Mr Wills, with no further grounds for complaint than were included in his initial email to Mr Wills. He claimed that the editorial had ‘caused a great deal of consternation in both Taupo and Otorohanga Districts.’

The Taupo Times’ response
Mr Wills’ response to the Press Council stated that he had responded to Mr Williams both personally and in a subsequent editorial published on December 5. Mr Wills reiterated that the original editorial was intended as an attempt to spark a friendly rivalry and it was not his paper’s intention to insult or embarrass civic leaders or citizens. He indicated that the December 5 editorial had offered a sincere apology ‘to anyone who had taken offence. None was intended.’
He believed that the editorial is correctly labelled as an opinion column and should be judged as such. He claimed that the article was not defamatory and could best be judged as satire. He concluded with his belief that his paper had acted professionally and quickly in apologising and looked forward to the Council’s ruling.

Further Responses
Mr Williams emailed the Council on 20 January and reiterated that Otorohanga team members had been hurt by the comments. He claimed that a sincere apology was still owed to Otorohanga District Council and to the members of the Otorohanga Top Town Team.
Mr Wills maintained his newspaper’s position that an appropriate apology had been tendered in the December 5 editorial. He said he had written twice to Mr Williams to apologise for any offence caused. He repeated his earlier comments about sparking rivalry and not intending to give offence and said no complaints had been received from ‘general readers.’
In response Mr Williams indicated that a ‘sincere, written statement of regret tendered to the aggrieved party’ was his definition of an apology and that this had not been forthcoming. Following a phone conversation with the Secretary of the Council, he requested that the complaint proceed.

Discussion
This situation arose in the context of a sporting competition, Top Town Teams, in which largely amateur but enthusiastic sportspeople compete. Regional rivalry can be intense, and it is in this context that Mr Wills’ comments were made.
Some of his expressions would appear to justify Mr Williams’ reference to ‘juvenile attempts at self-gratification’, particularly expressions such as the Otorohanga team being comprised of ‘wannabes and was-beens’ and that if Otorohanga was to beat Taupo, Mr Williams would be invited to ‘personally spank my butt in the middle of his tin-pot town.’
The fact that Mr Wills had previously been resident in Otorohanga and had obviously not enjoyed the experience possibly added fuel to the fire.
In the Taupo Times dated December 5, alongside the editorial there is an article admitting that Otorohanga’s mayor found Mr Wills’ editorial ‘not funny and frankly insulting’. In the editorial alongside, Mr Wills reiterates his claim that insult was not intended, and that ‘we are more than happy to say sorry and offer a sincere apology to anyone who has taken offence.’


Conclusion
The editor of the Taupo Times appears to have misjudged the tenor of this article. The laddism inherent in his writing, while he claimed it to be intended to spark regional rivalry, has, as he admitted himself, ‘fallen flat.’ However, the writing occurred in the context of an editorial and is clearly editorial opinion, not factual claim, despite the umbrage that has been taken by various parties including the complainant. In addition, the editor did apologise on December 5. The complaint is not upheld.