DELAWARE BAY RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION AGAINST NELSON MAIL

Case Number: 2197

Council Meeting: JULY 2011

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Nelson Mail

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Editorial Freedom
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Delaware Bay Residents Association, through chairperson Grant Williams, complained that an editorial in the Nelson Mail, regarding the closure of a shooting range in the Cable Bay area of Nelson, breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, comment and fact, discrimination and diversity, and corrections.

The complaint is upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy.

Background
The editorial on the long-running dispute regarding a shooting range in a rural-residential area east of Nelson, published in the Nelson Mail on March 26, argued that the issue illustrated the tension between new arrivals in rural areas and their willingness to accept activities and noise levels commonly prevalent in rural areas. The editorial specifically identified new residents, “some from overseas”, as being the complainants about the noise of the shooting range. It stated that new citizens, whilst they must be accorded the same rights and privileges as those born here, should be willing to fit in and not impose their values and desires on the community which has accepted them.
While the newspaper had previously covered the saga (2007), the editorial did not mention an Environment Court decision (delivered in March 2011) regarding the permissible noise levels for the shooting range.
The editorial stated that the closure of the shooting range was the loss of a valued resource which came at a high cost to its owners and that it was due to complaints by recent arrivals into the district.

The Complaint
The day following publication Mr Williams complained to the newspaper that the editorial contained false information and was objectionable and damaging to residents who lived near the shooting range. Three days later Mr Williams wrote again to the editor of the Nelson Mail on behalf of the Delaware Bay Residents Association elaborating on his initial complaint.
In his capacity as chairperson of the Association Mr Williams argued that pertinent facts had been omitted from the editorial which, had they been included, might have led readers to a different conclusion.
Specifically, these related to the date of establishment of the shooting range which the Association claimed post-dated the arrival of residents close to the site and quoted evidence to the Environment Court in support of this.
In relation to the noise levels, Mr Williams quoted the findings of the Environment Court that noise exceeded a reasonable level and had an adverse effect on the environment, specifically residents in proximity.
Mr Williams also pointed out that the affected residents, at a cost of $12,000, had employed acoustics experts to consider the effects of the range and that the Association had offered $30,000 towards relocating the shooting range.
Mr Williams stated that the Environment Court had imposed restrictions which led to the owners deciding to close the range. He acknowledged this was a severe blow to the owners.
Finally, Mr Williams addressed the editorial’s claim that complainants were recent arrivals in the district and from overseas. He found this out of kilter with the facts and distinctly anti-immigrant. He identified himself as a “hunting, gathering, house building, flounder net mending, wire straining, digger driving, farm-bred Kiwi and tangatawhenua of a mere 35 plus generations”. Thus, he argued, the claims that “new arrivals” had shut down the range were totally incorrect, highly offensive and ridiculous.

The Newspaper’s Response
The newspaper did not respond to the initial complaint nor did it respond to Mr Williams’ letter of March 30. On May 6, following a request from the Press Council regarding the formal complaint, the editor wrote to Mr Williams stating that he (the editor) would be writing a personal letter of apology to him and his fellow Delaware Bay Residents Association members. The editor also offered an opportunity for the complainants to submit a Voices or Opinion column reflecting on the new ambience in the area since the shooting stopped. The editor argued that as the story “was a while ago now that the time for us to relitigate it as a story seems long past.”

Complainant’s Response
The Delaware Bay Residents Association welcomed the offer of a personal apology but did not consider the offer of a Voices or Opinion piece as a satisfactory remedial measure. There was also concern expressed that despite careful wording such a piece ran the risk of further polarising Delaware Bay and the wider community. Additionally, the Association wished the Nelson Mail to take responsibility for the misinformed editorial of 26 March and pointed out that the delay was caused by the newspaper’s failure to respond to the original complaint and to Mr Williams’ letter of March 30.

Newspaper’s Response
On June 6 the newspaper responded by defending the editorial as comment on a long-running saga, stating it was based on a reasonable assessment and interpretation of the facts as well as readers’ opinions. The newspaper also rejected the claim that the views were objectionable and damaging to the community though it did accept that the editorial would be at odds with the residents who were unhappy with the shooting range.
The newspaper argued that the issues illustrated a familiar problem in rural New Zealand where the arrival of rural-residential developments brought town dwellers into proximity with often disruptive rural activities. In this way the dispute could be seen to be “reverse sensitivity”.
The newspaper reinforced its perspective based on what it claimed to be “facts”:
The range had been operating within its permitted limits;
It provided a popular and socially useful service;
It had been established for some time;
The “caveat emptor” principle should be applied when considering complaints from residents regarding neighbourhood noises.
Additionally the newspaper stood by its labeling of the complaints as coming from a few “new arrivals” and by its claim that some residents had moved to the area from overseas. The newspaper argued that “the court would not have made its ruling if these residents had not pursued an action and sought relief.”
It also explained that editorials are succinct and tend to argue a firm clear line without traversing finer points nor do they have to present other points of view.
The newspaper requested evidence to back Mr Williams’ claims that the editorial was “damaging to the community” otherwise it would be regarded as rhetoric. The editor claimed a newspaper’s right to advocacy.

Discussion
The owners of the shooting range chose to close their business rather than comply with the noise level requirements of the Environment Court ruling. To argue, as the Nelson Mail does, that the noise level restrictions would not have been enforced by the Environment Court had neighbours not complained is a false argument. The Council notes that the Nelson City Council was also an application to the Environment Court hearing.
The Council finds it inaccurate that the complaining neighbours arrived in the vicinity after the shooting range was established. The Environment Court noted “…the fact is that the commercial, non-police and police use of the Range were not being undertaken on the site at the time of subdivision. These gave rise to a massive increase in shooting activity on the site.”
As regards the noise, the Environment Court said “…we consider the present combination of private, non-police and police activity on the range and on the site fails all three of the tests to which it is subject in this case. The noise generated by these activities exceeds a reasonable level as well as being offensive and objectionable to such an extent that it has an adverse effect on the environment …”
Similarly, evidence from the Delaware Bay Residents Association to the Press Council demonstrated that it was also misleading to suggest that the complainants had recently arrived from overseas.
Such inaccuracies, added to the failure to make any mention of the Environment Court ruling or attempts by local residents to help relocate the shooting range and on top of the misleading statements about arrivals from overseas imposing their will on locals, combined in an unfortunately misleading manner.
Furthermore two aspects of this complaint strike the Council as curious. Firstly is the significant delay in responding to the complaint or, indeed even to acknowledging the complaint’s existence, until forced to do so by the Press Council’s formal request for a response early in May. There has been no explanation of why this occurred.
The other aspect worth noting is that the newspaper was initially apologetic and offered a “personal letter of apology” from the editor as well as an opportunity for the Association to submit an Opinion piece. However, when the newspaper responded it took a distinctly different attitude and refused to acknowledge that there were grounds for complaint.
The Press Council acknowledges that opinion may be freely expressed in an editorial column but that any information given as fact should be accurate. There were inaccurate and misleading statements in the editorial.
The newspaper’s failure to deal with the complaint for six weeks nullified the potential efficacy of the offered right of reply. A timely right of reply is often considered sufficient redress for inaccuracy or error.

Therefore, on the grounds of inaccuracy, the Press Council upholds the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.