Case Number: 1043

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2005

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The principal of Tokoroa High School complains that an editorial in the Waikato Times on 21 July 2005 lacked balance and was factually incorrect. The complaint is partially upheld.

Under a heading “Tough Times at Tokoroa High”, the editor commenced by saying “There will be some anxious parents in Tokoroa justifiably questioning the standard of their children’s education.” The editorial dealt largely with a recently released report of the Education Review Office (“the Report”).
There are three parts to the complaint: First, Mr Edwards takes exception to the comment that:
“The Education Review Office has just released its latest report on Tokoroa High School which reveals the school is failing even at the most basic levels of maths and reading.”
The second point was, in fact, a criticism of Mr Edwards himself when the editor said:
“It is clear from the report the school has been largely dysfunctional and the management problems of the past year have affected student learning. For this principal, Elgin Edwards, must shoulder a large share of the blame.”
The final point was that in the last paragraph of the editorial it was stated:
“Mr Edwards has a tough job convincing the school community he is the right man for the job. His refusal to speak publicly about the school’s difficulties makes it difficult to assess his commitment. It is to be hoped he is communicating openly with parents and the wider community – a generation is depending on him.”
The Basis of the Complaint
In respect of the allegation that “the school is failing even at the most basic levels of maths and reading”, it was submitted that this was, in effect, not correct. The overall NCEA results were above those of many schools of a similar decile.
Secondly, Mr Edwards pointed out that the Report nowhere stated that he “must shoulder a large share of the blame”. He said the statement made by the editor was simply incorrect. Mr Edwards thought that the manner in which the editor attacked him was unfair and unbalanced.
Lastly, Mr Edwards said that he was under a clear instruction not to talk with the media or make public statements to the school community. The Waikato Times knew this. In these circumstances, the statement that it was difficult to assess his commitment was unfair and unjust in that the editor based it on “his refusal to speak publicly”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor suggested that Mr Edwards was unaware of the role of a newspaper editorial. That role was to give an opinion on an issue and the editorial in this case was the honestly held opinion of the paper and therefore the editor.
It was the opinion of the editor based on the Report that the school had failed even at the most basic levels of maths and reading. The editor acknowledged that the Report does contain statements on areas of good performance and areas of improvement.
In respect of the comment suggesting that Mr Edwards must shoulder a large share of the blame, the editor acknowledged that while the report did not say this specifically, it was the paper’s opinion based on what the report said, plus the problems that have come to light over months of stories on the school, that this was the case. In the editor’s words “It would be highly unusual in most organizations if the top man did not take a large share of the blame for any dysfunction on display”.
In respect of the comment that Mr Edwards refused to speak publicly, the Editor also stated that this was the honestly held opinion of the paper. The Editor said:
“by his own admission, he has refused to speak out, and the fact that it is the Commissioner who has muzzled him is for him and his employer to sort out.”
It is relevant in respect of this point that in a letter to Mr Edwards dated 2 September 2005, the editor said:
“For the record, we rang your office on the day the report was released, and were told you were on holiday, and that you had a media ban on you anyway. [The education reporter] who you have spoken to at least once, also tried another time and was told you weren’t allowed to speak. Other reporters over the past year have also been told the same thing – which I think proves how seriously we have tried to talk to you...”
An editorial is an opinion piece. It is the “column” where the newspaper, invariably directed by the editor, expresses its views on matters of public importance. This Council has always upheld an editor’s right to express his or her opinions, notwithstanding that they may be strongly worded. Freedom of the press in this respect is an underlying principle of democracy. However, as this Council noted in Case No. 887 (2002) “opinion may be freely expressed in the editorial column but any information given as fact should be accurate.”
The allegation that the school was “failing, even at the most basic levels of maths and reading” is not a specific quote from the Report. The Report noted the difficulty in appointing good quality staff and that in some areas the students were enrolled in the Correspondence School for their English courses and other courses were also taught through correspondence. There is no comment in the Report on any failure of maths. The Editor, in the Council’s view, could not have formed the view from the Report that there was a “failing even at the most basic levels of maths and reading”. The statements suggest that this was a reasonable inference from the Report itself. It was not and as such this part of the complaint is upheld.
In the Council’s view, the opinion that Mr Edwards must shoulder a large share of the blame, was an opinion based on facts. The Report, although containing some positive statements, was in the main critical of the school. It noted that the school was “having difficulty providing a satisfactory education for its students, particularly those in Years 9 and 10; Curriculum leadership and curriculum management was of a low quality; effective quality assurance systems were lacking at all levels” and there were several other criticisms. This part of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council is also prepared to uphold the complaint relating to the statement that Mr Edwards’ commitment is difficult to assess because of his refusal to speak publicly. It is apparent from the quotations above from the letter of 2 September 2005 that the newspaper and several people in it knew that Mr Edwards was not allowed to speak publicly. Thus, to infer that Mr Edwards’ commitment is difficult to assess because of something he was not allowed to do is both misleading and inaccurate.
The practice of the newspaper seeking comment from Mr Edwards in the circumstances is questionable. The reporters knew that a Commissioner was in charge of the School and the principal had been asked not to speak to the media. In such circumstances, questions in respect of the Report should have been addressed to the Commissioner and not to the principal.
The Council upholds the complaint in respect of Mr Edwards’ first and third complaints, namely the editorial, was both inaccurate and misleading when it stated that the Report revealed a failing even at the most basic levels of maths and reading, and also when it stated that Mr Edwards had refused to speak publicly and as such it was difficult to assess his commitment.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Murray Williams and John Gardner.