DALE WILLIAMS AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2179

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Politicians
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

Dale Williams, Mayor of Otorohanga, is upset at a critical reference to him in a Waikato Times feature about the (then) pending local body elections. The feature, published on September 25, 2010, was written in a colourful and entertaining style about a range of candidates and issues. Mr Williams, who was re-elected unopposed as mayor, says the slighting comment about him ruined his chance to also be elected to the Waikato District Health Board. His complaint is not upheld.

Background
The feature aimed to stimulate interest in issues facing voters who would be electing candidates for the Waikato electorate's various district, city, and regional councils, and district health board. The feature did not adopt a serious tone; it set out to capture attention by focussing on the "human interest" aspects and personalities of the elections rather than analysing particular issues. Only a few candidates featured, such as youthful first-timers.
Special attention was given to the views of "ordinary" members of the community, and their opinions were sought on a variety of issues likely to be of concern to voters. The feature's initial focus was on Otorohanga.
Most interview subjects were identified - but not all. One unidentified man, interviewed while using a lawnmower, launched into what the newspaper called "a bitter tirade" against Mayor Williams. The mayor was assured of victory in the election, with no one standing against him, and the man's comments about him reflected that. Four short sentences were attributed to the man, one of them extremely derogatory.

The Complaint
Mr Williams was upset that the comments were published without being referred to him, and feels that the newspaper deliberately sought out this particular man.

Mr Williams he believed he knew the identity of the man interviewed in the feature and this man had a record of causing trouble for him. The man was not allowed within 500 metres of Mr Williams by court order. He had been convicted in 2009 of a range of offences against Mr Williams, his family and property. The man had also damaged council property. Mr Williams listed other concerns about him and his potential to cause more trouble, and cited police involvement. "This person is well known locally as having a deep hatred towards me. Neither locals who have complained to me about the story nor I believe the reporter 'chanced' upon this person."


Mr Williams said the newspaper later told him "everyone they spoke to in Otorohanga had good things to say about the mayor and council". "If so, how come they chanced upon the only person who didn't? Also, if that's true, how does printing his insults give the story balance?"
Mr Williams asked why the newspaper had not asked him for comment, or to give some balance. If so, he would have told the reporter about this person's history.
He said he was re-elected unopposed, for the third time, "so why print an attack on me in a story supposedly about the forthcoming election when no one's voting for me?"
Of most concern to him, however, was that he was also seeking election to the Waikato District Health Board. The Waikato Times story had "ruined" his chances as the newspaper circulated in the DHB's area. "Anyone reading that story now has an opinion of me that is based on lies and gutter journalism."
He had contacted the newspaper's editor and reporter, but neither was remorseful. He wrote a complaint to the newspaper, but did not get a response.
He said that, while the matter was unresolved, he would be unavailable to the newspaper. He had previously made himself freely available to reporters, believing it important to do so.

Waikato Times’ Response
Editor Jonathan MacKenzie said that, as he had previously explained to Mr Williams, he had no way of knowing if the man interviewed was the same man Mr Williams was concerned about. "Our reporter simply stopped a bloke on the side of the road mowing lawns."
The reporter, as part of his brief, spoke to people at random for their views on the issues and the people associated with the election.
The "rhetorical" comments relating to Mr Williams were a small part of a much bigger feature about the region. "They did not warrant further exploration, inspection, or comment from anyone. They simply provided a bit of colour in a story that was bigger than a one-horse race for the mayoralty in Otorohanga."
Voters had their own views on those who ran for office and the newspaper was entitled to print them.
He denied that the Waikato Times was involved in any kind of conspiracy against Mr Williams, and it had previously published many "positive" stories and photographs about him. He hoped Mr Williams would make himself available to the newspaper in future.

Discussion and Decision
Mr Williams believes he knows the identity of the person interviewed. The Waikato Times editor says the newspaper has no way of knowing if it is the same man.
Mr Williams says the newspaper told him "everyone they spoke to in Otorohanga had good things to say about the mayor and council". He asks how the newspaper "chanced" upon the only person who didn't.
Mr Williams says the man he suspects was interviewed has "a deep hatred" of him and has been convicted of offences against Mr Williams.
Mr Williams did not name the man. The newspaper did not name the interview subject either.
While the Press Council has sympathy for Mr Williams' situation, and while it questions the newspaper's motives in not identifying the interviewee in view of the circumstances outlined, the Council has no reason not to accept the editor's assertion
The comments added colour to a "colour" feature. People are entitled to express their views about those standing for public office, within conventions such as decency, slander etc.
The Waikato Times editor says voters have their own views on those who run for office and newspapers are entitled to print them. The editor also says the remarks did not require further exploration, inspection or comment from anyone.

The Press Council agrees, and 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, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.