Case Number: 1031

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Derek Williams of Napier complained through his lawyer, Andrei Sharko, about a report in Hawke’s Bay Today of 24 September 2004 on an argument between Mr Williams and a Napier resident, Selina Crouch, arising from the loan of a petrol can. The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The report of 24 September by Mary Shanahan appeared under the headline ‘Trespass order against council hopeful after petrol-can debacle’. The article gave both Ms Crouch’s and Mr Williams’s version of events focussing on a confrontation between Mr Williams and Ms Crouch in which she claimed that he had been “swearing his block off” and could clearly be heard by children in the house. Mr Williams was standing for election to the Napier City Council at the time and the article reported that he had sent a fax to the newspaper after the incident accusing it of discrediting “non-establishment candidates.”

The central issues are to do with fairness, accuracy and balance. Mr Sharko, acting for Mr Williams, contended to the Press Council on 19 December, that the headline had been inaccurate and damaging. No trespass order had been served against Mr Williams. “It cannot be disputed that some readers of the paper will have read the headline, seen the photograph, read, or not read the article, and then formed a negative opinion of Mr Williams.” Mr Sharko insisted on the distinction between a trespass order, which he said had a “criminal connotation” and a trespass notice. In fact no form of restraint had actually been issued against Mr Williams at the time of publication. The complainant also maintained that it was inappropriate in an election campaign to publish a photograph more than a year old. In sum it was contended that the newspaper had published “a pile of hearsay”; that the article was nothing more than the report of another person; and that it was “irresponsible” to publish such a damaging article and to hide behind (1) Mrs Crouch and (2) public interest.

Mr Sharko, on behalf of Mr Williams, formally complained to the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today on 24 September the day of publication of the article. The editor responded the same day maintaining that an altercation between a campaigning council candidate and a citizen is a matter of “extreme public interest”. The editor said the newspaper was obliged to accept Ms Crouch’s version of events. She had confirmed several times that she had taken out a “trespass order” against Mr Williams. For his part, Mr Williams had responded to enquiries by first refusing to talk to the reporter and then “with threats”.

The Press Council agrees that the incident was newsworthy in the context of an election campaign. Obviously a candidate would prefer that a spat of this kind not be brought into the public arena in such circumstances. Nevertheless the 24 September report balanced the accounts of the two principal parties. Mr Williams’s side of the story received rather more than half of the space allocated. It is noteworthy – since Mr Williams plainly believes the newspaper is engaged in some sort of conspiracy against him - that the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today then agreed “to set the record straight as soon as possible if there (are) inconsistencies in our report”. The complainant was given the opportunity to comment on a draft, which cited Mr Sharko’s arguments on the matter of a trespass ‘order’ as against a ‘notice’ and the circumstances in which such a restraint could be regarded as effective. Mr Sharko asked, on behalf of his client, that two insertions be made and this was done. This process obviously took a little time. The follow-up piece was published on 28 September duly making the point that Mr Williams had provided a signed declaration from his partner to the effect that he had not used foul language and that what was said between him and Ms Crouch could not have been heard in the house. The headline was ‘Council candidate denies using foul language in front of children’. Again the report carried a photograph.

Mr Williams requested a hearing before the Press Council. His case was ably presented by Mr Sharko (with Mr Williams present) at the Council’s meeting on 20 June. Mr Williams has since submitted further material in support of his case which he said he had realised had not been provided to the Council by his lawyer. Again the nub of his complaint is that the report of 24 September failed as to accuracy, fairness and balance. In particular it is contended that the reporter had failed to enquire whether a trespass notice or order had in fact been issued; and as to the actual circumstances as reported by the complainant (Ms Crouch). The reporter had moreover not informed Mr Williams before publishing the first report on 24 September that he was alleged to have sworn at Ms Crouch.

The Editor of Hawke’s Bay Today responded that the reporter had in fact checked with the police “on the day the story ran” and been told that a complaint had been laid. As for the circumstances surrounding the complaint, they had been reported as told by Ms Crouch; when the reporter had attempted to check back with Mr Williams he had warned her against undertaking a “character assassination.” The editor also denied the claim that the reporter had repeatedly telephoned Mr Williams when he had asked that all dealings be in writing. He had instructed staff not to get involved with Mr Williams. Nor was there any conspiracy against Mr Williams.

The Press Council is obviously in no position to arbitrate between differing versions of what transpired between the various parties. Its role is to determine whether coverage of the incident was appropriate. In this regard the Council considers that the second article provided any necessary balance in that Mr Williams was given the opportunity to get his point of view across during the course of the election and to clear up any problems arising from the first report. His repudiation of the accusation of swearing was made clear both in the article and in the headline. As such the full coverage of the incident was effective and fair. There were errors in the headline to the first article on 24 September because at the time of going to press the trespass notice had not been issued, but more importantly a “trespass order” is incorrect. These points, which were covered in the second article, were stressed by Mr Sharko at the hearing and in other material supplied by Mr Williams, and are noted by the Press Council.

They are not of sufficient weight to uphold the complaint.