Case Number: 936

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2003

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Ashburton Guardian

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Environment Canterbury (Ecan) complained about a series of articles run by the Ashburton Guardian, and relating to resource consent applications for the Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR).

The Press Council has part upheld the complaint.

A 67-kilometre-long combined irrigation, stock water and hydro power canal, the Rangitata Diversion Race has been in operation for 57 years. After the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) came into force, resource consents were needed. The Ashburton Guardian reported that the key activities of damming, diverting and taking water from the Rangitata and Ashburton rivers were authorised by notified use consents which expired on October 1, 2001.

The RDR had been able to continue exercising these consents under special conditions of the RMA. In February this year the RDR management committee was seeking renewal of these consents to enable the continued operation of the RDR.

In a Page 1 lead article on January 31, headed "Report sparks RDR concern" the Ashburton Guardian's chief reporter Annette Scott wrote that a review report on applications for consents had sparked concern over the future of the RDR. While a commissioners' hearing of the applications was to be held in February, a review report by Warwick Pascoe, prepared under the provision of the RMA, stated "all of the water permit applications were considered to be non -complying activities and 'therefore cannot be granted unless they pass the threshold test'."

This story was complemented by an Editorial Opinion piece by Scott inside the paper which was headed "Bureaucrats holding RDR to ransom". Scott wrote: "The forebears of the 1930s and 1940s project must surely be seething with anger to know the future of their innovative project that built the backbone of the district’s rural economic status is being held hostage by office-sitting bureaucrats saying the water permit applications for the continued use of the RDR are 'considered to be non-complying activities'. Therefore, the review report states, the renewal of consents cannot be granted unless they pass the 'threshold test'. Failure to obtain these consents will result in the loss of millions and millions of dollars to the Ashburton district."

The headline of the Editorial Opinion and the passage quoted are at the heart of Environment Canterbury's complaint which covers a series of articles which run prior to and through the course of the RDR consent applications hearing.

Environment Canterbury complained that the headline and statement were not accurate, fair or balanced and would have deliberately misled and misinformed readers. Commenting on the review report, Environment Canterbury's complaint said: "It is a matter of routine that a [RMA] Section 42A report will assess whether the activity applied for is a discretionary activity or a non-complying activity… if an activity is a discretionary activity, the RMA provides that certain criteria must be used…if an activity is a non-complying activity then the RMA provides that certain other criteria must be used to determine whether or not the application should be granted.

"The section 42A report in this case simply stated that the activities which were the subject of RDR's application were considered to be non-complying activities so that the Hearings Commissioners would know which set of criteria were appropriate to use…"

It seems clear what happened: taking the ordinary meaning that "non-complying" meant a well-established water scheme could be closed down, the newspaper embarked on a campaign with 23 articles in as many days and headlines such as "RDR starts fight for survival", "Farmers fear livelihoods under threat", and "Personal heartbreak has no measure".

Ecan could have indicated early to the newspaper and the public what all this meant, particularly the definition of “non-complying”. The newspaper for its part had a duty to inform itself and its readers what “non-complying” meant in this context. Ecan was in
an awkward position and its reticence is understandable given that it appoints the independent commissioners for the hearings. It would not want to enter public debate that showed any partisanship. But it should have done something, given the likelihood of misunderstanding which, in the event, did occur.

While the resource consent hearing had still to take place, the paper ran a Saturday February 8 Guardian Today story headed "$1bn down the drain, Ecan refusal to award water consent threatens to choke RDR and district." The article on page 12-13 inside gave the full story that the consent hearing was yet to take place, and the view that a refusal could threaten livelihoods. Readers would not necessarily reach that but could take the headline as read.

The paper ran a Correction panel on February 13 saying it had been brought to its attention that the word "refusal" was "open to misinterpretation". It explained: "The RDR is only classified as a non-complying activity pending the findings of the resource consent commissioners. The Guardian sincerely regrets any suggestion Ecan has made a final judgment on the RDR water consent."

However, the words "refusal to award … threatens" without any qualification or conditional tense such as "would threaten" is not open to interpretation but clearly wrong. The complaint against the newspaper is upheld on the ground of inaccuracy here.

Sensibly, the paper also ran an article from Angus McKay, Ashburton Constituency Councillor, Environment Canterbury, headed "Reporting of resource consent disappointing". This expressed the concerns Environment Canterbury subsequently outlined in its complaint.

This article also said the allegation that Environment Canterbury sees rivers as public water and wells as private and therefore not subject to the same processes was clearly incorrect. This was originally a point of view from a farmer quoted by the Ashburton Guardian.

The rather anxious approach the newspaper took to this issue was reflected in its articles but it cannot be censured for its vigorous local campaign when it felt, and its readers obviously agreed, that so much was at stake. A newspaper in these circumstances does not necessarily take the cool and neutral stance of an official authority. The clear Editorial Opinion was able to use the exaggerated figures of speech referring to ransom and being held hostage in general terms - they often come up in political debate - as they are not out of place in a robust comment column.

The newspaper continued to cover the RDR hearings prominently, even though the number of stories about witnesses’ evidence seemed weighted towards the supporters rather than objectors to the consents. In the end, this energetic partisan reporting was not unexpected given the paper's reader base, although the exception was the clearly wrong headline against which the complaint is upheld.