Case Number: 2210

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Straight Furrow

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest

The Press Council has partly upheld a complaint by the Federated Farmers South Canterbury (FFSC) against Straight Furrow, on the grounds of conflict of interest.

Straight Furrow, describing itself as “New Zealand’s Rural Weekly”, published a front-page article on 24 May 2011 citing concerns raised by the Opihi Catchment and Environment Protection Society (OCEPS). Their concern was directed to Environment Canterbury (ECan) and they wanted investigation of a claim that chemicals had been dumped in the Opuha Dam when the dam was constructed in the 1990s.
The claim included an affidavit from a man who worked on the construction of the dam and also a photo provided by another source.
The report said that the Straight Furrow reporter, among others, was present when the affidavit was made ‘and believed it was genuine’. Three dumps were identified by the deponent, who claimed that sealed drums had been buried by bulldozers and that when he had gone to check on the bulldozers’ progress, an overpowering smell of chemicals had been evident.
Straight Furrow’s reporter had rung the bulldozer contractor’s firm (the original contractor is now dead) to check if any original overseers were still around or alive, but was informed that none was available.
Straight Furrow acknowledged that at the time it was considered appropriate to bury chemicals on the floor of the dam rather than have them disposed of professionally, but that there were now concerns being voiced by anglers that fish were being caught with black flesh, that these fish were often inedible because of strong odours, and that tests OCEPS was conducting on the Opihi and Opuha rivers were producing erratic results. Potential problems downstream had been commented on in a report commissioned by the Opuha Dam Company in 1999.
Other users of the dam might also be at risk if toxic materials had leached out from the drums, as the Opuha is a popular destination for various water sports users.
ECan had said it was not uncommon for former employees to come forward and tell of chemical dumps and it was taking swift action to check the claims, with the environmental protection manager cited as saying the matter was very serious and its truthfulness, and the location of the dumps, needed to be verified.
In the article, Straight Furrow also identified a likely problem herbicide that could be buried in the drums as being 2,4,5-T, “a component of Agent Orange” referred to later in the article as ‘more commonly referred to as Agent Orange’.
Straight Furrow published a subsequent article on 2 August 2011 (after FFSC’s complaint) verifying that ECan’s review showed that ‘there were no pesticide in any of the water samples and pesticide levels in sediment and fish/eel flesh and liver samples were consistent with other samples taken from around Canterbury’. However, further sampling should be done. The article was followed by an editorial and article rebutting concerns that the reporter was a member of OCEPS, information which had been removed from the original draft of the article the reporter submitted. Both the editor and the reporter stated that her participation in this group had not biased her investigation.

The Complaint
FFSC, through its National Vice President Dr William Rolleston, complained to the paper after its publication of the first article, alleging breaches of the Press Council principles of “conflict of interest” and “accuracy, fairness and balance”. FFSC was concerned that the reporter had not disclosed her role in OCEPS which, the organisation claimed, raised questions about lack of impartiality by the reporter and the paper.
Further, FFSC maintained that 2,4,5-T is a component of Agent Orange but ‘it is not Agent Orange. Agent Orange was not manufactured nor used in New Zealand’. The paper’s claim that 2,4,5-T was ‘commonly referred to as Agent Orange’ was therefore incorrect. Neither did the article take account of the different concentrations of dioxin in the 2,4,5-T used in New Zealand compared with the 2,4,5-T used in Agent Orange. They provided information indicating that the dioxin level in New Zealand 2,4,5-T was approximately 100 times less than that in Agent Orange.
FFSC requested the paper to investigate the complaints, advise FFSC of its findings, and ‘publish in a place no less obvious than the articles (i.e. on the front page) an acknowledgement of and an apology for not disclosing [the reporter’s] conflict of interest’, and an article which showed the paper was inaccurate in describing the alleged chemicals as Agent Orange.

The Newspaper’s Response
The reporter replied the next day describing the OCEPS as a very small group that looked at restoring water quality and whitebait, and she was not ‘an activist’ as alleged in FFSC’s complaint. She was aware of others who had raised concerns about fish and water quality, but they were not members of OCEPS. She claimed that her approach to the story was only what any serious journalist would do, when encountering an affidavit raising the kinds of issues this one did.
Dr Rolleston was not satisfied with the reporter’s response, and approached the editor of Straight Furrow. He reiterated that his complaint was about the reporter’s non-disclosure of interest and the unbalanced nature of the article, as he saw it. He did not think it appropriate that the reporter whose impartiality was being queried, had written back to him. He referred to Press Council deadlines, requesting a swift reply.
The editor replied promptly that he was happy for the complaint to go to ‘that level’ (by implication, to the Press Council) but that he had offered FFSC the chance to have Dr Rolleston’s letter published, and this had not been responded to. Dr Rolleston had also been offered the chance to address the issues in print but had declined. He claimed that the reporter had been the recipient of threats, and that he himself had received insults from a FFSC member.
The editor reiterated that his reporter’s membership of OCEPS was immaterial as she had expressed no opinion nor promoted any cause in the article; she had merely investigated comments made by the deponent of the affidavit and sought additional comment from a range of sources. Fairness and balance could not have been provided by anybody else, since no-one else supposedly knew of the situation.
Informed by the Press Council that Dr Rolleston had subsequently lodged a formal complaint, the editor replied that he had offered Dr Rolleston publication possibilities but the latter had never actually spoken with the editor. He stated that his reporter was just doing her job, and that her association with OCEPS had been disclosed but ‘was edited out for space reasons’. Abusive comments about the reporter by a FFSC member had been received, and Mr Rolleston’s claims that she was an activist ‘are ludicrous’. ECan had taken the claims seriously and acted on them. The dam’s founder had expressed dismay when told of the situation and offered help. A further article had been published (August 2) in a similarly prominent position pointing out the results of the review. The editor was surprised by the vehemence of the farmers’ response when ‘it is well known chemicals are buried on many farms and near waterways’ and it was unlikely that the frail 72-year-old deponent would have made up the story.
In that edition (but on page 6) both the editor’s and the reporter’s comments on the conflict of interest claim were also the subject of a substantial article; however no apology was included for the omission of the reporter’s participation of OCEPS and both denied that it constituted a conflict of interest.
Dr Rolleston replied to the Press Council continuing to maintain that the article on 24 May breached the principles cited in his original complaint to Straight Furrow. FFSC did not accept the assertion that there was no conflict of interest, and stated that Agent Orange had been mentioned in the story to ‘sensationalise’ it and ‘elicit an emotive response in the reader’. While the paper had subsequently acknowledged the reporter’s role in OCEPS, it had not acknowledged that this membership should have been disclosed in the initial article, and that the balance issue was still unresolved.

Both sides acknowledge that the reporter’s role in OCEPS should have been mentioned (rather than edited out) in the original article. While the article was largely a report of what others said it does, both explicitly and implicitly, contain the views of OCEPS and includes comments that are presumably the views of the reporter, as they are not attributed to anyone else. It is more than an exploration of the dumping issues raised by the deponent. The Council believes that the reporter’s affiliation to OPEPS should have been disclosed and the omission of this fact did constitute a breach of the Principle relating to conflict of interest.

The issue of the correctness or otherwise of the reference to Agent Orange in the article is more complex. Neither side denies that 2,4,5-T was ‘a component of Agent Orange’ but FFSC argued that levels of dioxin in its preparation in New Zealand differed significantly from those in Agent Orange, and that to claim the 2,4,5-T was ‘commonly referred to as Agent Orange’ was incorrect. In the box at the top of the article, however, the reporter did state that the herbicide was ‘a component of Agent Orange’ so at best the argument about accuracy is conflicted. Some members thought there was no need for Agent Orange to have even been mentioned in the article.
While some Council members expressed the view that the ‘commonly known as Agent Orange’ statement was inaccurate and grounds to uphold, overall the Council did not believe that readers would have been left with the impression that Agent Orange was involved, so this aspect of the complaint was not upheld.

The complaint is upheld on the grounds of conflict of interest, but not upheld on the issue of accuracy, fairness and balance.

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

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