Case Number: 937

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2003

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Rural News

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Ian Walker, president of Federated Farmers (Northland), has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about an article that appeared in March 2003 and part of a gossip column four weeks later in the fortnightly newspaper Rural News.

His complaint about comments in the column, known as The Hound, is simply resolved. On this occasion, the Council believes The Hound’s comments pushed the boundaries of acceptability, but given that the column has been a long-standing feature of the paper and that its remit in dispensing often-pungent criticism is well understood, the Council does not uphold this part Mr Walker’s complaint.

Mr Walker’s other complaint relates to an article published a month earlier, on March 3, that relies on unnamed “industry sources”. These sources express concern at the potential for a conflict of interest between NFF and its business relationship with a company partly owned by the president, Mr Walker, and another board member, Chris Mathews. In making what the News clearly understood was a somewhat inflammatory suggestion it made use of the auxiliary “may” to soften the impact

Mr Walker describes the reports as grossly inaccurate, unfair, unbalanced, vindictive and deliberately misleading. After the article’s publication, Mr Walker, on behalf of his board, threatened legal action against the newspaper through its legal counsel. Rural News’ editor, Adam Fricker, responded via his paper’s lawyers, saying the newspaper would staunchly defend itself.

In the end, both parties opted instead for a Press Council adjudication.

Essentially, Mr Walker, Mr Mathews, and the board said they believed that the newspaper’s “industry sources” did not exist and that the article was a complete fabrication. They also argued that neither Mr Walker nor Mr Mathews had been given the opportunity to comment on the article immediately before its publication, although they had been approached some time earlier. The News maintained it had tried to contact them.

Mr Fricker countered that the “industry sources” did exist and that it was standard journalistic practice to protect their anonymity where that had been sought. He also said that both men had been asked for comment, which had been refused, and referred to reporters’ notes of February 13.

On the issue of whether or not comment from Messrs Walker and Mathews was sought, the Press Council cannot make a finding in this straight confrontation about facts. That means that neither side is disbelieved, but the point is not crucial. A periodical newspaper will always have a longer lead-time than newspapers published daily, meaning information and the writing of reports for the next edition might be completed some time before that edition is published.

However, the Council reminds editors of the importance of seeking comment from opposing parties – where possible, within the same article, and where that is not possible, as soon as practical thereafter.

As to the issue of the use of anonymous sources, the Council cannot find any lapse in ethics by the newspaper here.

However, it again takes the opportunity to remind editors of the risk they run with the public credibility of their publication when unnamed sources are relied upon too frequently.

Editors know that anonymous sources should ideally be used only when information of public interest cannot be gleaned any other way or, for example, when fronting up publicly will jeopardise the physical safety or continued employment of the source. Editors need to be satisfied as to the source’s motivation and integrity when anonymity is sought.

Press Council principle 4 bears repeating in part: “[Editors] also have a duty to take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that such sources are well informed and that the information they provide is reliable”.

Clearly, the editor of Rural News believed that his reliance on unnamed critics of the business arrangement between a company that does work for Federated Farmers Northland and is partly owned by its president and a board colleague, met that stiff criteria. There are, therefore, no ethical grounds for upholding that part of the complaint.

Mr Walker also complained about inaccuracies in the March 3 report. These referred to the chairmanship of a broadband trust and that the website, www.federatedfarmers.com, had been established to launch a broadband Internet service in Northland. These Mr Fricker concedes in correspondence with the Press Council.

The Press Council upholds that part of Mr Walker’s complaint. Good practice insists that inaccuracies are corrected as soon as practicable after they are drawn to the attention of the publication concerned. According to the material put before the Council, this was not done and, in the council’s view, should have been.