DICK MARSH AGAINST WAITOMO NEWS

Case Number: 2140

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waitomo News

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Right of Reply

Dick Marsh complained that the Waitomo News had breached several of the Press Council’s principles. In particular, he complained that the newspaper had censored or refused to publish letters to the editor that were critical of the Waitomo District Council (WDC). His complaint is not upheld.

Background
Mr Marsh has often questioned the performance of the WDC, and the mayor, Mark Ammon, via the letters to the editor section of the Waitomo News, a twice-weekly community newspaper.
In April 2010 the newspaper published a letter from Mr Marsh, criticising the WDC’s intention to continue to subsidise wastewater charges against two local companies. He linked that decision to hospitality the mayor had enjoyed in China, courtesy of the owner of one of the companies.
A week later, the mayor responded to the criticism, via the letter to editor section. He claimed that Mr Marsh’s letter contained false statements and cheap shots, and, overall, lacked accuracy and common sense.
Mr Marsh met with the editor, Sue Sarich, and demanded a right of reply.
She agreed but subsequently balked when Mr Marsh submitted a letter of over 1300 words.
Despite protracted negotiations (see below) a resolution could not be reached and Mr Marsh took his complaint to the Press Council.

The Complaint
The essence of his complaint is that the editor gave an undertaking to publish his letter but then failed to meet that commitment.
Mr Marsh explained that she had asked him to shorten the letter but he wished to keep the thrust and pertinent information intact.
During subsequent discussions she had “eventually” agreed to publish the letter in full.
However, the letter was not published.
Again he met with the editor. Again she asked him to shorten it.
This time the complainant drafted a series of suggestions, which included publishing in full, publishing in full over two editions, and publishing as part of an article with which Mr Marsh would “assist”.
She rejected these suggestions and offered to shorten his right-of-reply letter herself.
However, her draft was in turn rejected by Mr Marsh. He saw it as “censorship of the most blatant form.”
When the letter did not appear he made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
He also complained that the newspaper carried paid advertisements for the WDC containing “self-promotion, propaganda and fiction”, and that letters and articles by the mayor contained “false and misleading information”.
In summary, he argued that the Waitomo News favoured the WDC and its mayor while censoring or selectively reporting criticism, in order to obtain advertising revenue.

The Newspaper’s response
Ms Sarich firmly rejected the notion that the newspaper was in collusion with the mayor and the WDC.
She noted that she had met with the mayor and the CEO of the WDC to discuss their belief that many letters were inaccurate and vexacious. Both had been informed that “the letters to the editor column was an avenue . . . to voice concerns in a public forum and would continue to be so”.
Paid “advertorial” was carried by the paper for the WDC and she admitted that “we may have been remiss” in not emphasising enough that this was WDC copy and not newspaper copy.
The newspaper had published letters by the complainant in the past, with little or no abridging, but his letter of May 13, in reply to the mayor, had not been published because it was both too long and contained a personal attack.
She explained that she had made several attempts to resolve the matter.

Discussion and Decision
Newspapers must take care to delineate the boundary between “advertorial” and “editorial’ content. The editor herself recognises that the double-page spread distributed with the Waitomo News for the WDC and entitled Waitomo Way might well have been over-printed with the words “Paid Advertisement” to avoid any possible confusion.
There was further room for confusion because the newspaper published other copy generated by the mayor and/or WDC, such as the mayor’s regular column, “In My View”.
However, there was little to substantiate Mr Marsh’s sweeping claims about collusion between the newspaper and the mayor/council and the editor declining to print material critical of the WDC for fear of losing advertising.
That aspect of his complaint is dismissed.
In general, the Press Council is reluctant to accept complaints about letters to the editor. A footnote to the Council Principles states: “Selection and treatment of letters for publication are the prerogative of editors, who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest . . .”
The Council accepted this complaint because there was an issue of fairness. After being so sharply criticised, Mr Marsh could reasonably expect a right-of-reply.
It is impossible for the Press Council to determine what undertaking was made, if any, but it is important to recognise that the editor seems to have readily accepted that he was indeed entitled to a response.
But Mr Marsh was not entitled to respond at such great length – he submitted over 1300 words – and his unbending demand that it be “published in full” was simply unreasonable.
The newspaper’s “house” rules are published alongside the letters to the editor section and include “The editor reserves the right to abridge and preference is given to letters no longer than 300 words . . .”
Finally, the Press Council is of the view that her suggested shortening of the letter, while removing some of the more colourful language attacking the mayor, maintained the complainant’s pointed criticism of the WDC and the mayor, effectively granting him over 500 words to make his case.
Mr Marsh declined to accept this reasonable compromise and his specific complaint about censorship and non-publication is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.