DAVE HENDERSON AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2192

Council Meeting: JULY 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Dave Henderson claims The Press failed to comply with Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) of the Press Council Statement of Principles when reporting as to Mr Henderson’s alleged entry into the Christchurch CBD “red zone” at various times after the 22 February 2011 earthquake.

By a majority of 5:4 the Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

Background
On 2 April 2011 The Press ran a story headed “Access to red zone infuriates”. The story reported concerns of unnamed business owners as to why Mr Henderson had been allowed into the red zone while others “[battled] to get access”. The story referred to Mr Henderson, a bankrupt no longer allowed to operate a business, having been “spotted” with colleagues or “friends”, inside the red zone at least twice. The story referred to Civil Defence as saying business owners had different access rights but all went through the same process. Mr Henderson, according to Civil Defence, “had no special access rights and was subject to the same constraints as others”.

The story proceeded then to quote from an “open” letter from a business owner addressed the Christchurch mayor questioning the basis for Mr Henderson having free access to the zone while others were denied similar rights. The story reported Mr Henderson as not having responded to questions from The Press.

It transpires the open letter quoted in the story was written anonymously.

The Complaint
Mr Henderson complains the The Press reporter contacted him by email sent at 11.32am 30 March seeking a response to various questions regarding Mr Henderson’s alleged access within the red zone cordon. The reporter sought a reply by 4pm the same day. Mr Henderson says he did not access the email until later on 30 March. Mr Henderson is aggrieved because despite the story in question not actually running until 2 April there was no further attempt by The Press to contact him. Mr Henderson claims that with the story being published three days later he was given no reasonable opportunity to respond to the reporter’s questions. He says the rights accorded to him by Civil Defence were the same as those given to other business people.

Mr Henderson further claims The Press failed to mention the open letter quoted was written anonymously. Mr Henderson says The Press should have mentioned this fact. Mr Henderson says the letter was “clearly vitriolic and nasty”. He claims the The Press changed the phrase in the letter “he and his henchmen” to “he and his friends” so as to ameliorate (or mitigate) the vitriol. Mr Henderson says the paper should not change a quote from an anonymous letter “to make it work better for [the] story”.


The Response
The Press responds by denying the claim its reporting was unfair, lacked accuracy or was unbalanced. First, the newspaper says Mr Henderson was given adequate time to respond to the reporter’s questions on 30 March. Secondly The Press says “the story in no way suggests that Mr Henderson had no right to be in the red zone, rather it is a reflection of widespread frustration within the business community as to the manner of Civil Defence providing access”. Thirdly The Press says it did not need to refer to the open letter as being anonymous. It had been “widely circulated” (presumably other than by The Press article). The story had been corroborated through separate avenues. And fourthly “henchmen” had been changed to “friends” out of a concern Mr Henderson might be defamed. The Press refers to an earlier Press Council determination permitting letters to the editor to be shortened to manage legal risks.

The Decision
The majority of the Press Council did not uphold the complaint but had some concerns about the article.
The Press should have recorded that the open letter from a "business owner" was anonymous, even if it was well circulated about the community.
Moreover, having given Mr Henderson a deadline of a few hours, the article was not published for another three days. The reporter also adopted a cavalier approach to his questioning of Mr Henderson.
Nevertheless, access to the red zone was a matter of legitimate public interest, particularly when some people were being denied such access. Mr Henderson's ability to gain access was a matter for inquiry.
The article records The Press had other sources that Mr Henderson had been seen in the red zone, and it also recorded that Civil Defence had said Mr Henderson had received no special privileges.
It was therefore accurate and, given Mr Henderson's high profile, it was not unfair or unreasonable to follow up public concerns about favoured treatment about access to the red zone.
Mr Henderson says he does not read The Press, and that it was unacceptable to be given a short time to respond for a story that was not published until three days later.
Equally, however, he could have told The Press their deadline was too short and that he would need more time. He did not do so. It seems clear from the correspondence between the parties that they have a certain familiarity based on past experience and practice and, in this instance, it served neither party well.
Mr Henderson's complaint of the editing of one word from the letter is a minor matter because the word could have been regarded as objectionable and The Press was entitled to remove it although, having made the change, the use of quotation marks could be questioned. Again, that is a minor matter.
Mr Henderson complained of a lack of accuracy, fairness and balance but on all counts, the majority does not believe the complaint should be upheld.

Minority opinion
The minority of four members did not consider Mr Henderson was given sufficient time to answer the questions the reporter put to him in the 30 March email. A four hour response time was not reasonable especially since the story did not run until three days later. Mr Henderson was entitled to treat the 4pm deadline as being final and could be excused for thinking that any comment made after 4pm would be disregarded.

Contrary to the newspaper’s assertion the article, when considered objectively, concentrates on Mr Henderson and implies there was something nefarious about Mr Henderson’s activities in the red zone. The emphasis was not on the wider frustrations the business community had with Civil Defence over access to the cordoned area. If The Press was in fact reporting on those frustrations there would have been no need to refer to Mr Henderson’s bankruptcy (an irrelevancy) or the fact Mr Henderson had allegedly been seen in the area unaccompanied by Urban Search and Rescue staff or police. The latter reference suggests some impropriety on Mr Henderson’s part. If the object was to demonstrate inconsistencies in the way Civil Defence was administering access to the zone there was no need to quote so extensively from the open letter, a letter which was demonstrably aimed at Mr Henderson. Given the story’s emphasis and the later publication date the minority takes the view The Press should have given Mr Henderson a better opportunity to reply.

The minority does not agree with The Press over its treatment of the anonymous open letter. The fact it may have been widely circulated does not detract from the fact the correspondence was anonymously written. Anonymous correspondence must be treated with some scepticism at least in the first instance. The minority believes the newspaper should have indicated the letter extensively quoted came from an anonymous source.

The Council accepts that in the ordinary course a newspaper may modify a letter to the editor for legal reasons. This was the Council’s decision in Banks v Greymouth Evening Star (decision 828). But this anonymous letter was not a letter addressed to the editor for publication as such. The letter was addressed to the mayor and was apparently open. It was a provocative piece. It contained a reference which, by the newspaper’s own admission, was potentially troublesome. It should have been treated cautiously by The Press.

Press Council members not upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson, Clive Lind, Kate Coughlan, Stephen Stewart and John Roughan.

Those members who dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint were Pip Bruce Ferguson, Keith Lees, Sandra Gill and Chris Darlow.