FIONA GRAHAM AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2316

Council Meeting: MARCH 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Court Reporting
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

A complaint by Dr Fiona Graham against the Otago Daily Times (ODT) newspaper is not upheld.

Background
Dr Graham and her company own a building in Wanaka named Wanaka Gym Ltd. It is home to a variety of different people who sign contracts to occupy from upwards of 3 months and share cooking and washing facilities. There have been up to 20 people staying at the Wanaka Gym; Dr Graham has lost a recent appeal to have convictions related to breaches of the Building Act and relating to fire safety overturned, and she has been fined $64,000 on a variety of charges. The OTD’s latest articles report on High Court findings, but their coverage of relevant court cases extends back several years.

Dr Graham claimed that this facility is a "single household unit" and as such does not need to comply with regulations affecting other types of residential facilities. The Queenstown Lakes District Council took a different perspective and, from the time that the building was redeveloped in 2000, sought to require conformity to the regulations for short term visitor accommodation. They had evicted Dr Graham's tenants because she had failed to implement fire safety regulations.

Dr Graham claimed that the Queenstown Lakes District Council had acted illegally in these evictions; that she had been spied on by Council staff; that the QLDC did not want the house finished and had been inconsistent in their attitude to the safety of the building's ceiling. Further, she claimed that the Otago Daily Times, in reporting on her situation, had missed a 'huge story' of 'the worst case of harassment ever by a local council against a house owner.'

She claimed that decisions by the Ombudsman (2002); the High Court (2006); and a civil court hearing (2009) which vindicated her had not been reported by the ODT.

Approached by an ODT reporter in October 2012 with questions for a further article, Dr Graham responded that he was asking the wrong questions and should be interrogating the QLDC about aspects of their treatment of her. The reporter replied that he was interested in the costs incurred by the QLDC (reported as $740,000) and repeated his questions, which would have enabled Dr Graham to put her side of the story, and the costs that she had incurred.

Dr Graham replied that the reporter wrote 'biassed news reports' that exacerbated her situation. She requested to see the reporter’s article before it was published 'and I'll co-operate'. There was a Judicial Review of her case coming; his article might affect the outcome; and she felt she had been 'persecuted by the press' already.

Dr Graham subsequently contacted the editor of the ODT requesting not to work with the reporter but 'with another journalist who is capable of getting the facts straight', or she would write an exclusive herself. She stated that the QLDC did not want to admit that it was in error, which is why it had pursued her through the courts. The editor replied that the paper sought to achieve accuracy, fairness and balance, and urged her to put her points across in an interview with their reporter. A series of further emails back and forth reiterated similar points on both sides.

The Complaint
Dr Graham laid a complaint with the Press Council early November citing principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; of comment and fact; and of corrections. She claimed that wins her firm had achieved through the courts had not been reported, neither had a report by the Ombudsman in 2002 (no evidence of which was provided). The paper, said Dr Graham, had reported throughout the period purely from the perspective of the QLDC and 'have not reported a single positive outcome on our side'. This reporting, which Dr Graham claimed is 'prejudiced and partial' had caused great financial and hostility problems for her and her firm.

The Newspaper’s Response
The Deputy Editor replied that the ODT rejected claims of biased and unbalanced reporting. It had several times offered her the opportunity to put her point of view and participate in an interview but 'this offer was not taken up.'

The Deputy Editor said that the matter was now before the courts, which were the proper forum to hear the kinds of issues that Dr Graham was claiming had occurred. The paper had published numerous articles which covered court proceedings fairly and accurately.

The ODT forwarded several articles relevant to the case.

Discussion
The articles submitted by the ODT showed that the paper had followed the various court hearings over eight years. These articles (e.g. the paper’s reporting on December 9, 2009; July 6, 2006; and March 16, 2010) refute Dr Graham's claim that the paper has 'not reported a single positive outcome on our side' as they cover aspects such as the lifting of an injunction against Dr Graham.

The most recent, pertaining to Justices Lang and French’s decisions, clearly show that Dr Graham’s claim that the accommodation was a ‘single user household’ was not accepted by the Court.

The ODT has followed standard court reporting procedure in its articles, repeating evidence from both sides of the argument. It further offered Dr Graham an opportunity to put her opinions in an interview prior to the latest article. She declined this invitation.

The Council finds no breach of the principles and the complaint is not upheld.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.