DAVID SHAND AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2400

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Politicians
Accuracy
Misleading
Sensationalism
Unfair Coverage

David Shand claims that The New Zealand Herald failed to comply with Principle 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in relation to articles published in its newspaper on 8 and 14 July 2014. Both stories, by the same reporter, covered funding issues confronting the Auckland Council. The 8 July story was headed “Big cuts loom in bid to keep cap on rates rise”. This article incorporated an opinion piece by the reporter titled “Hey big spender, you’re in a deep financial hole”. The 14 July article was headed “How city finances hit crisis point”.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint, with one member dissenting.

Background
The articles, broadly, covered the current 10-year budget debate within the Auckland Council and the issues arising. While the Auckland Council has large projects planned, particularly the City Rail Link, debt has grown substantially and promises have been made to keep rate increases capped. The 8 July story concentrated on likely spending cuts, on the probable cancellation of various projects and the consequential effects on citizens. The opinion piece accompanying the 8 July article expressed the view that the city “has been living well beyond its means and got itself in deep financial trouble”. The 14 July story purported to explain why the city has found itself in this position. The 14 July story referred to comments from people who are critical of the Mayor. The articles referred to the need for the Council to “slash” $2.8b in spending over 10 years with cuts of $486m each year.

The Complaint
Mr Shand essentially says that the stories are inflammatory and inaccurate. Mr Shand refers to the value of the Auckland Council’s gross assets ($37b), the amount of the current Council debt ($7b) and the Council’s operating surplus for the last financial year ($246m). Mr Shand says that, far from the Auckland Council’s finances being “in crisis”, the finances are in fact under control. With proper management the Council can meet its long term objectives in providing the required infrastructure and services for Auckland’s growing population. Mr Shand refers in particular to Auckland Council’s debt being within “prudent limits” with it having operated according to applicable legislative constraints.

Mr Shand says that articles are unnecessarily alarmist. He says the stories are based on facts which are wrong. Mr Shand says the Herald has been neither accurate, fair, nor balanced in its reporting.

The Response
The Herald responds by saying its treatment of the budgetary issues has been accurate, fair and balanced. The Herald has referred the Press Council to a series of pieces it has published including a piece from Mr Shand himself, a letter from the Mayor printed on 11 July (straight after the first article was published on 8 July), several follow-up stories over the next six weeks and letters from readers on both sides of the divide. The newspaper says that on any analysis Auckland rate payers are likely to be facing either substantial rates increases or cuts in services. The Herald makes no apology for reporting the difficulties facing the Council and the hard decisions which will have to be made around long-term funding and infrastructure and services provision.

The Decision
The majority of the Press Council does not agree with Mr Shand. While the 8 July and 14 July articles were robust and while they did not specifically refer to the asset values, debt levels and operating surpluses Mr Shand points to, the stories dealt with issues which were certainly topical and likely of considerable interest to most Auckland residents.

The Press Council notes in particular Mr Shand’s commentary published by the Herald in its 16 July edition. There Mr Shand set out his views which are similar to the matters he now raises with the Press Council. The Press Council is also notes the Mayor’s acknowledgement (printed on 11 July) that the City is facing “tough decisions”.

Mr Shand, in commenting on the newspaper’s response to his complaint, concedes that his key objection relates to various headings and subheadings included in the articles. Mr Shand says the phrases “living beyond its means”, “financial mess”, “deep financial hole” and “crisis point” are emotive, inaccurate and inappropriate. Mr Shand acknowledges that the Herald acted properly by prominently publishing his views on 16 July.

Some of these phrases are contained in the opinion piece published with the 8 July article. The Council has made it clear many times that opinion pieces can be expressed in strong terms. Opinion pieces need not be balanced. Such pieces frequently prompt strong opposing views. The Press Council will only find that an opinion piece breaches the Principles in the most egregious of cases (for example where extreme and offensive views are expressed and where there is no rational basis for the opinion). This is not one of those cases.

Importantly though the Press Council is satisfied the Herald has presented a balanced picture. It has done so by publishing material, albeit over several weeks, which sets out opposing views on issues which will have currency for some time. While not strictly relevant Mr Shand has referred the Press Council to opinion pieces on the issues and published in rival newspapers. There is no doubt Auckland Council’s budgetary problems are being given a wide airing. It could be said that these are difficult times for Auckland Council. The possible solutions are controversial. It is inevitable that what whatever is reported by the media will prompt heated debate.

The majority of the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Minority opinion from Peter Fa’afiu
The Auckland Council’s current 10-year budget debate is a highly sensitive matter for the Council and its ratepayers. The Herald makes no apology for reporting on the challenges facing the Council and the hard decisions to be made around long term planning and funding. I concur, the Herald should not. However, given the importance of the issue to its readers, it is incumbent upon the Herald to ensure that its coverage is bound at all times by fairness, accuracy and balance. On this occasion, the publication has failed its readers.

I agree with Mr Shand’s views that both the 8 and 14 July articles were based on generalisations without factual basis. The emotive language used by the publication for its 14 July article gave an overall impression to its readership of financial mismanagement by the Council. The editor argues that Mr Shand might be the only person to have taken that view. This Council member was another.

The mixing of article and comment for its 8 July article (and again used on 29 August) is slowly creeping into industry practice. It does not however provide clarity to the public as to what should be treated as an article by the publication or comment by a journalist.

The Herald argues that the wider context facing the Council is its spending and impact on the ratepayers. Agree, however the ballast for such an argument sits with key financial facts. The Herald’s starting point on this important issue is that the Council finds itself in an unsound financial position. This is not the case. Mr Shand’s views are not purely an “accountancy view” as the Herald outlines, it is a view based on significant experience in the sector and understanding of financial analysis. The journalist might understand Council but he does not provide confidence to the reader that he knows key financial matters.

The Herald argues that the coverage over a number of weeks provides balance. An imbalance was created with the publication of the first article. The imbalance was perpetuated when that article was used as a basis for further coverage both in print and on radio and TV. Mr Shand’s Opinion Piece should be treated as filling the factual gaps for the publication’s readers.

Whilst I agree with the view of the majority of the Press Council that media reporting on this issue is critical, I disagree that it should be left to members of the public to provide balance to a misinformed readership. This responsibility sits with the publication.

The issue is worthy of an informed debate based on facts and reason not inaccurate claims. For those reasons, I believe Mr Shand’s complaint should be upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.