DON HEDGES AGAINST THE NORTHERN ADVOCATE

Case Number: 2172

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Northern Advocate

Ruling Categories: Bias
Photographs
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Don Hedges complained to the New Zealand Press Council about a series of articles published in The Northern Advocate in the run up to the Whangarei District Council mayoral elections held late last year (2010).
The complaint is not upheld.

Background
Mr Hedges is a colourful and well-known Whangarei character who became one of 10 contenders for the Whangarei mayoralty.
The mayoral campaign hotted up considerably when a prominent Whangarei businessman, Morris Cutford, supported by other Whangarei businessmen, put his candidacy forward with a strong thrust against the incumbent, who was standing for re-election. This was front page news on 24 June.
On 18 September, Mr Hedges hit the front page. Under the headline “Would-be mayor’s knife charge quashed” the Advocate reported that 24 years after he had been convicted for a knife attack, Mr Hedges had his conviction quashed on a technicality. Mr Hedges said he planned to apply for compensation because he had served time.
The story was accompanied by a picture of a jubilant Mr Hedges wearing torn clothes, and with a wide smile on his face.
On 22 September, the paper ran a further story showing the 10 mayoral contenders and listing their convictions. Mr Hedges’ long list of criminal convictions was given prominence. The pictures of the other nine mayoral candidates were passport-style. The photograph of Mr Hedges was the one used on 18 September.
The paper published a letter from Mr Hedges in the “Letters to the Editor” section on 2 October. In this, he set out some of his views as candidate. The 18 September photograph accompanied the letter.

The Complaint
Mr Hedges wrote a letter of complaint to the editor on 9 October and again on 13 October. The first letter provided the editor with his thoughts about the justice system in particular. The second letter was in particular a complaint about the listing of Mr Hedges’ convictions, and about the continued use of an inappropriate photograph.
The editor gave Mr Hedges advice about how to proceed with a complaint to the Press Council.
The complaint alleged that the press coverage was unbalanced, that the coverage given to Mr Cutford’s candidacy failed to highlight that candidate’s lack of knowledge of the workings of the Whangarei District Council, that the publication of his (Mr Hedges’) criminal record during a critical time in the mayoral campaign was unfair, and that other candidates had not submitted a true account of their trouble with the law.

The Editor’s Response
The editor strongly rebutted the accusation of bias or unfairness. The paper had been at pains to offer all candidates the chance to state their views in a weekly column throughout the campaign period.
Mr Cutford was widely regarded by the community as a serious contender who came out of the left field with powerful backing from local business people.
The photograph of Mr Hedges supporting the story about the quashing of his criminal conviction was one that the paper had had for some time. It fitted the celebratory tone of the story.
He added that the allegation that the paper was biased towards Mr Cutford had no substance. Indeed the newspaper had printed a page one story of a behind-the scenes bid by Mr Cutford’s supporters to get the minor candidates to stand down. This was hardly complimentary to Mr Cutford.
The complaint about the candidates’ criminal convictions story should be viewed in the light of the information provided by the candidates, all of whom were asked the same questions; the editor noted that Mr Hedges has a lengthy “rap sheet”.
In essence, the paper has not shown bias. It published Mr Hedges’ letter to the editor, and offered the opportunity to write a further letter to the editor voicing his complaint against the paper. He did not do so.

Conclusion
The complaint is not upheld. In a many sided mayoral contest, a newspaper cannot give all candidates equal coverage. Within a short time, certain candidates emerge as strong contenders, and it is those candidates and the issues surrounding their candidacy, who receive more coverage.
Mr Hedges is clearly a well-known and colourful Whangarei candidate. The news of the quashing of his criminal conviction for a serious crime coming in the middle of an election campaign was not the best timing for him. However, that story was newsworthy and had clear public interest.
Mr Hedges may not like the photograph, but the paper is not in breach of the Press Council’s principles in using it.

The complaint is not upheld.

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