EARTHQUAKE COMMISSION AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2433

Council Meeting: MAY 2015

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) complained that The Press’ coverage of a civil suit between Cameron and Suzanne Kelly, EQC and Southern Response (SR) breached Press Council Principle 1 because it lacked balance.

Background
In September 2014, Cameron and Suzanne Kelly sued the EQC and SR for $590,000 for the rebuild of their 100-year-old Christchurch home, which was damaged in the February 2011 earthquake.
The hearing took place in three stages - a week in late September/early October 2014, a further week in December 2014, and a final two days in March this year.
The delay in proceedings was due to the fact that the hearing was originally set down for five days but most of this time was taken up with the plaintiffs’ evidence, requiring a new court date to be set.
The Press covered the first week of the hearing when the plaintiffs’ evidence was presented, and published daily updates on the case. The reports were also carried online on Stuff.co.nz
The Press did not cover the hearing when it resumed in December to hear the respondents’ evidence, nor on the final two days in March when both sides summed up.

Complaint
In the first week of the hearing, The Press ran daily updates on the claim against the EQC and SR, reporting “serious allegations of bullying, denial of entitlement, and systemic issues with EQC’s assessment of damage” by counsel for the plaintiffs and their witnesses.
The EQC presented evidence over a number of days in the second week of the hearing in December, but this evidence was not covered by The Press.
On December 17, the EQC complained to The Press about the lack of balance, and suggested that coverage of the remaining days of the hearing in March would go some way towards addressing the imbalance, provided the EQC’s evidence was given prominence.
The EQC presented its summary of evidence on March 2. The Press did not cover the EQC’s summary.
The EQC acknowledged that it was normal to expect that coverage of an ongoing case “will include individual accounts which are slanted to one side or the other, and which may contain strenuous allegations”, but pointed out that a publication can achieve balance by reporting both sides’ evidence.
The EQC said the “totality of coverage has created serious imbalance and had not served the interests of The Press’ readership in presenting all the salient facts”.

Response
The editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, defended the extensive coverage of the first week of the hearing in September because she believed the story was important.
She said the coverage was fair, accurate and balanced, and included reportage of the cross-examination of the plaintiff’s witnesses by the EQC’s counsel.
She acknowledged that this did not make up for The Press’ failure to cover the respondents’ case adequately by reporting the EQC’s evidence in December, nor the final addresses in March.
The error was brought about by a “regrettable failure” of the newspaper’s diary systems caused in part by the piecemeal nature of the hearing, and the uncertainty of the hearing dates, she said.
The editor noted that while the EQC Stakeholder Communications Manager Iain Butler had contacted the newspaper to express his views that further hearing dates should be covered, he did not identify the dates in his correspondence. Although it was not the EQC’s responsibility, it would have been of assistance given the concern raised, she said.
The editor requested the Council to note that The Press has worked hard to maintain a strong working relationship with the EQC, and had published 489 pieces of content on the EQC in the past 12 months. “We believe robust coverage of the activities of the commission is in the interest of Cantabrians,” she said. “We seek to deal with any complaints the commission makes as effectively and pragmatically as possible.”

Discussion
The Press’ failure to cover the second and third hearings of the Kellys’ claim against the EQC, for whatever reason, meant the EQC’s evidence was not reported in the newspaper or on the Stuff website. Because of the extensive coverage of the plaintiffs’ evidence, and the serious nature of the allegations made by their counsel and witnesses, the EQC rightly asserted that the newspaper’s readers deserved to hear the counter arguments to test the credibility of the opinions.
The editor of The Press has acknowledged the error however, and accepted full responsibility. In her response, she undertook to cover the High Court judgment, when it is delivered, “thoroughly and fairly” in the newspaper.
While the Council accepts that the lack of coverage of the EQC's evidence was a mistake, which can be attributed in part to the stop/start nature of the hearing, there was no excuse not to attend the March hearing. This was a fundamental error in court reporting where balance is of vital importance.

The failure to achieve that balance is a clear breach of Press Council Principle 1.

Decision
The complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small and Mark Stevens.