EARTHQUAKE COMMISSION AGAINST THE PRESS NO 2

Case Number: 2240

Council Meeting: MARCH 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Introduction
Iain Butler makes the complaint on behalf of the Earthquake Commission (EQC) regarding an article published by The Press. Correspondence was also received from Debbie Barber (General Manager, Communications for EQC). The grounds are: accuracy, fairness and balance.

Mr Butler’s complaint is not upheld.

Background
The Press published an article on 2 January 2012 under the heading EQC claims management criticised. The article was one in a number of articles relating to the EQC. The article predominantly covered issues relating to EQC claims management and related issues.

The article commenced with reference to an internal report commissioned by EQC and released under the Official Information Act. This report was commissioned by the EQC to make recommendations on improvements to EQC’s reporting of claims performance which it had recognized as a “weakness”.

Complaint
Mr Butler, EQC Media Manager, believes that the article was unfairly critical of the EQC and used information incorrectly.

He believes that despite the EQC providing accurate information to The Press, the newspaper did not incorporate this in the article.

Mr Butler stated that the information, which would have provided balance, sent to the newspaper was dismissed by the newspaper as “background” and neither the message nor the material appeared in the article.

He goes on to state that the 20% at the end of the article which gave a short, dry, statistical analysis of the claim volume handled by the EQC does not correct the imbalance of the 80% preceding it.

Mr Butler states that while the newspaper used the words “claims management”, the report quoted from was about “claims reporting”.

Mr Butler telephoned the newspaper on 2 January 2012 to make a complaint regarding the article and spoke to the chief reporter who declined to take any action.

He then made a complaint on 19 January 2012 to the deputy editor who was standing in for the editor who was away.

The deputy editor responded on 30 January 2012 offering to put a note in the “Putting it right” column and included suggested wording for the note.

This was not accepted by the EQC as it was not considered adequate, both for the time elapsed since the article, and the placement of the correction. EQC believe that “putting it right” is in effect an opinion column for readers to suggest corrections and the EQC believed that the newspaper should make the correction as attributed to itself not the EQC as the article was not accurate.

Mr Butler acknowledges that the difference in wording may appear to be a matter of semantics, but the wording used by the newspaper gave an inaccurate picture.

In response to the newspaper’s comments regarding this complaint, the EQC stood by their premise that the article was not balanced, and that balance is not achieved by the newspaper publishing multiple articles.

The EQC acknowledges, given the information they now know, the initial complaint to the newspaper did not follow the correct process. However the EQC believe this is immaterial as it is not an unusual route to contact the chief reporter to have issues relating to accuracy dealt with.

Response from The Press
The editor for The Press does not accept that the article breached the principle cited by Mr Butler.

He went on to say that this was one of a number of articles relating to the work being carried out by the EQC and noted a number of articles since 3 September 2012. He believes that readers of The Press are well aware of the difficulties faced by the EQC due to this series of ongoing articles which have included information from EQC CEO, Ian Simpson.

He states that the complaint hinges on a very fine distinction – the difference between the EQC’s claims management system and the internal reporting of its claims management and that Mr Butler himself has conceded that the difference might appear to be semantic.

The editor believes that the reporting of claims management is part of an effective claims management system and the report quoted in the article itself makes the “vital connection” between claims reporting and claims management.

The editor believes the newspaper would have been able to deal with the complaint more effectively if Mr Butler had followed the normal process rather than initially speaking with the acting chief reporter and, when not receiving the outcome he required, taking it straight to the Press Council. The deputy editor was on duty on 2 January 2012 and would have been willing to deal with the complaint if he had known about it.

He believes that had Mr Butler spoken to the deputy editor that day, a mutually acceptable clarification could have been worked through and published very soon afterwards.

The deputy editor did not learn of the complaint until 19 January 2012. He did not believe that the complaint required any correction but was prepared to publish a clarification in the next “putting it right” column.

A clarification was drafted and sent to Mr Butler who responded that it was inadequate and he did not want it published.

Discussion
Neither party provided the Press Council with a copy of the internal report in question. The article is one that covers the EQC handling of the Christchurch earthquake and is one in an ongoing number of articles.

Both parties acknowledge that the wording could be seen as a matter of semantics.

The initial approach by the EQC was to the reporter concerned, and then to the acting- chief reporter who disagreed with the points raised. It would have been useful at that time if Mr Butler had spoken to the deputy editor, and given the fact that Mr Butler was making a complaint, the acting-chief reporter could have provided Mr Butler with information on the newspapers complaints process.

Once a formal complaint was received by the newspaper, efforts were made to accommodate Mr Butler. The newspaper drafted a substantial clarification which stated:

A story headlined “EQC claims management criticised” on January 2 has been challenged by EQC.
It described a report commission by EQC, saying it was critical of its “claims management” (in the headline) and “handling of earthquake claims” (in the introductory paragraph), as well as a claim there was “no overarching system for managing claims”.
EQC's media manager Iain Butler writes: ``The impression given by the article is the report was critical of how EQC dealt with customers claims, including how customers’ information was kept, and how they were paid out. In fact, the report released to The Press dealt with EQC’s reporting of claims management.
``This may appear a semantic distinction, but to use a more extreme analogy, if a police department is having trouble reporting crime, it does not necessarily follow that they are having trouble stopping crime.
EQC’s trouble with providing clear information on how it is managing claims is not an indication that the claims themselves are not being managed. In this regard, the Press article is inaccurate.''

Mr Butler declined the publication of a clarification due to the inadequacy of proposed remedy and the time elapsing since the article had been published.

The Council is of the view that this suggested action by the newspaper would have been sufficient to remedy any misapprehension. No doubt to the readers of the newspaper, and to the people of Christchurch, the difference was indeed semantic.

The complaint is not upheld.

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

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.