Case Number: 1027

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2005

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Bias

David Bosley is an ex-Councillor of the Napier City Council; he was not re-elected in the 2004 local body elections. Mr Bosley has complained to the Press Council about articles published in Hawke’s Bay Today that, he says, contributed to his election loss. The complaint essentially has three prongs. The first two concern specific articles that Mr Bosley says were inaccurate, misleading and unfair. The last is an allegation that the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today and his civic reporter were biased and deliberately set out to nobble Mr Bosley’s attempt at re-election.

The complaint is partially upheld on one of the specific complaints. The general complaint of bias and campaign sabotage is not upheld.

Specific complaints of unfairness

Mr Bosley complains that two articles were inaccurate, unfair and misleading.

The first was a ‘report-card’ opinion piece entitled “On their marks, set…vote!” published, on 15 September 2004, in the lead up to the local body elections. Each serving Councillor was given a mark out of ten and a pithy comment on their performance. Mr Bosley was given a rating of three out of ten. The comment on his performance included the following statement:

“Cr Bosley complained bitterly when Hawke’s Bay Today publicised his conviction for theft and again when we reported his U-turn on water meters, the main plank of his last election campaign. The Press Council has not upheld any of his complaints this term.”

The Press Council has previously ruled that there is nothing inherently wrong with report-card opinion pieces at election time (see rulings 867 and 1007). That is, of course, subject to the overriding requirement that publications should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission (see Principle One). In this case, the reference to Mr Bosley’s criminal conviction without recording that it was entered in 1978 was both unfair and misleading. In the context of the piece as a whole, the average reader would assume that the conviction had occurred during his term on the Council and was therefore relevant to his performance as a Councillor. The complaint on this point is upheld.

Mr Bosley also argues that it was inaccurate and unfair to refer to a U-turn on water meters, particularly as opposition to water meters continued to be an election platform. There was evidence upon which the newspaper was entitled to raise the issue. This aspect of the complaint is not upheld.

The second article in question, entitled “Councillors’ comments on meters bring confusion”, was published on 4 October 2004. That article reported that two members of the public had sought clarification on Mr Bosley’s stance on water meters. Confusion had arisen because the campaign flier of another Councillor, John Harrison, included a statement asserting that Mr Bosley was promoting the fitment of parking meters and water meters despite his campaign promises. Cr Harrison had been contacted and his comment referred to previous coverage of Mr Bosley making a U-turn on water meters. The article reported that Mr Bosley had not responded to messages asking him to contact the paper and provide comment.

Mr Bosley had, in fact, written to the paper on 4 October 2005 by way of complaint. In that letter, Mr Bosley said “why bother this late in the piece to request from me a response to whatever it is about water meters & parking meters… Cr Harrison happened to give you?” It was, therefore, generous for the paper to have reported an inability to contact rather than a refusal to comment.

On 5 October 2004, Mr Bosley sent a letter to the editor by way of reply to Cr Harrison’s reported comments. It was not printed. On 7 October 2004 Mr Bosley re-sent his letter with a handwritten note asking that it be printed in the interests of fairness. It was not printed. It may not have been immediately clear that Mr Bosley’s letter of 5 October was intended for publication. However any doubt should have been removed by the addendum of 7 October. Was it unfair not to publish it?

The Press Council has repeatedly stressed that the publication of letters to the editor is a matter of discretion for the editor. In cases where adverse comment has been published without any reply from the affected party and no follow-up article is planned, fairness would ordinarily lead to publication. But that does not mean that all letters sent under those circumstances must automatically be published. In this case, parts of Mr Bosley’s letter were little more than name-calling and whilst the editor may have invited him to redraft it with a view to publication he was not obliged to do so. This aspect of the complaint is not upheld.

Bias and campaign sabotage

Mr Bosley’s complaint comprised a large amount of material intended to support an allegation that the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today and his civic reporter deliberately set about sabotaging his re-election campaign by means of unfair reportage.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of what, if anything, the civic reporter said to a third party. The Press Council has not heard directly from that third party, and the reporter denies any wrongdoing. There is simply not enough evidence to determine the issue. The complaint of bias and campaign sabotage is not upheld.