Case Number: 880

Council Meeting: MAY 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Christchurch City Councillor Denis O’Rourke complained about an article headed Pollutants and Politics in The Press, Christchurch of September 8, which looked at Christchurch’s environmental problems - air, water and waste disposal.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

Councillor O’Rourke’s complaints focused on the sections about the proposed discharge of 500,00 cubic metres of treated wastewater a day into the Avon-Heathcote estuary (headed “Swimniing in sewage”) and the section about the disposal of solid waste (headed “What a waste”) and on two related sidebars headed The Estuary and The Landfill.

He complained that the article was wrong in many of the basic facts, grossly unbalanced and used emotive language. Phrases he disputed as inaccurate included that the council had “dumped a zero waste to landfill plan”, the reference to the estuary as “a sewage pond” and the sub-heading “Swimming in sewage” and the assertion that were “few signs of a broad consensus” about the new landfill. He objected to statements that “locals say [the new regional landfill] will leave their land and investments ruined”, and that Hurunui recycled 46 percent waste but Christchurch only 19 percent.

By contrast, said Councillor O’Rourke, the council had modified its plan for managing solid waste, but still included as its goal “zero residual waste disposal” while noting that real costs, environmental, social ,economic and legal, would impact on achieving the targets. These targets included a reduction of 65% minimum, 100% maximum, of the waste stream overall by 2020. Originally the goal had been more ambiguous, a reduction “by 100% by the year 2020 or by the time the new regional landfill is filled”.

An ordinary reader could be confused by the terms used in this part of the debate - Councillor O’Rourke complains that “the statement in The Press that the council had ‘dumped a zero waste goal’ is totally incorrect” whereas The Press article does not mention “goal”, the council’s ultimate aim, but refers to “plan” and “targets” which have exact council meanings for more specific, shorter term steps.

Councillor O’Rourke said the word sewage could not properly be applied to the treated waste-water discharge currently released into the ocean via the estuary during the ebb tide. He wondered who the anonymous locals were who objected to the planned new landfill and disputed the percentages of recycling quoted. Throughout, Councillor O’Rourke said the article presented anti-council points of view and although he was interviewed, his viewpoint and that of the council was not included in the article.

The editor rebutted Councillor O’Rourke’s complaint point by point, and the complaint, rejoinder and further comments went into laborious detail over many pages.

The editor quoted earlier articles and Councillor O’Rourke himself (“The original target was very idealistic. I supported it, but what we have to do now is get real”) in referring to a change in the zero waste to landfill plan.

The editor justified the reference to “sewage” by quoting supporting opinion from an Environment Canterbury (ECan) report, witnesses from the Department of Conservation in the resource consent hearing for the council’s application to discharge and the protests about the discharge (a majority of 2000-plus submissions on the plan were in opposition; the newspaper ran a photo to accompany the article showing protestors at the estuary with the banner “Stop the Poos”).

The editor quoted letters and a petition in opposition to the broad consensus about the landfill, from previous stories named locals who saw the landfill affecting their investments and land and defended the recycling percentages as already published. Councilor O’Rourke returned with a lengthy, point-by-point challenge to the editor’s rebuttal. Further exchanges between the parties with justifications in detail followed.

From the evidence submitted by both sides, the debate about Christchurch’s environment has been long and heated, and will continue. The Press has been covering these environmental issues vigorously and the council viewpoint has been well represented over a long period. It is inevitable in matters of contentious local debate that various parties will always be seeking endorsement for their point of view, and as the editor commented at one point, it is wrong to assert that only one point of view is supported by the facts.

In the case of the article Pollutants and Politics, this was clearly a broad-brush approach during a period of active campaigning in the local body elections. It was a challenge to the council and the candidates to face the problems the paper outlined in a colourful way that may have stirred some interest among normally apathetic voters at council election time.

Within the ambit of the article, the ordinary Christchurch resident would have been reminded of various elements of the debate about Christchurch’s environment and not necessarily need to be taken chapter and verse through it from the beginning. The City Council is central to this story and its actions and responsibilities are clearly alluded to in the article. Undiluted advocacy for a particular council point of view should never be expected in the normal course of such a story and that would have been clear to readers of The Press.

The complaint was not upheld.