FIONA GRAHAM AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2415

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Bias
Accuracy


1. Fiona Graham complains that a report in the Otago Daily Times dated September 15, 2014 is inaccurate and biased, in breach of Press Council Principle 1.

2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
3. For more than ten years Dr Graham and the Queenstown-Lakes District Council have been engaged in litigation over a property owned by Dr Graham’s company. From time to time the Otago Daily Times has reported on the litigation. A report in 2012 was the subject of an earlier complaint by Dr Graham to the Press Council, and the complaint was not upheld.

4. On September 15, 2014 the Otago Daily Times reported a judgement by Justice William Young in the Supreme Court. Justice Young had granted Dr Graham and her company an extension of time to make submissions in support of an application for leave to appeal but had refused a stay in relation to fines imposed on them by the District Court.

5. The report summarised Justice Young’s decision and then explained that Dr Graham’s appeals had been dismissed in the High Court and that both the High Court and the Court of Appeal had refused her permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. She was now asking for leave to appeal directly to the Supreme Court. In the final three paragraphs it gave a brief history of the litigation, saying:

• The proceedings had begun more than ten years previously as a civil action against Dr Graham’s company.
• The Council alleged she was running the property as visitor accommodation, in breach of the District Plan, and that it was a fire hazard.
• In 2006 a fine was imposed for contempt of court in continuing to run an illegal visitor accommodation centre, and in 2006 19 tenants had been evacuated for safety reasons.

Dr Graham’s complaint
6. Dr Graham’s complaint is mainly directed at the accuracy of the final two paragraphs of the Otago Daily Times report, but she also complains that the editor is biased against her. She says there has been no publication of her successes in the course of the litigation and in particular that there has been no publication of a determination that the property in question is not backpackers’ accommodation.

7. Dr Graham also complains of inaccuracies and bias in the earlier Press Council determination and asks that the determination be withdrawn.

The Otago Daily Times response
8. The editor of the Otago Daily Times, Murray Kirkness, rejected the claim of biased or unbalanced reporting. He said as far as he was aware the report of Justice Young’s decision was accurate, and that a correction would be published if it was inaccurate. He also reiterated an earlier offer to interview Dr Graham after the conclusion of the court processes and then to consider whether there was anything that would warrant further publication.

Discussion
9. While Press Council Principle 1 requires that in articles of controversy or disagreement a fair voice must be given to the opposition view, there is an exception for long-running issues and for reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories rather than a single report.

10. At least on the face of it, the report in question is a simple and accurate report of a further step in some very lengthy proceedings that have been the subject of several earlier reports. Dr Graham does not suggest that the report of Justice Young’s decision was inaccurate but takes issue with some of the background material published along with that report.

11. It is very clear that the three paragraphs of background material cannot be read as a full history of the litigation and that a reader seeking to understand the context of the proceedings would need to undertake further research. The question therefore is whether the material presented is accurate and whether, within its limitations, it is fair and balanced.

12. The first two of the three paragraphs are clearly accurate and are a fair representation of the origins of the litigation. Dr Graham claims that at a later stage it was determined that the property was not visitor accommodation and was not a fire hazard, but it remains true that these allegations were the foundations of the Council’s case against her and her company.

13. It is also indisputable that the company was fined for contempt of court, and that the Council later evicted tenants from the property, although in a somewhat unclear submission Dr Graham may be disputing either the number of tenants evicted or the reason for the eviction. However this is not sufficient basis for a finding of inaccuracy.

14. It is not true to say that the Otago Daily Times has failed to publish reports of decisions favouring Dr Graham. The earlier Press Council determination notes some such reports, though it is fair to say that in general the outcome of the litigation has not favoured Dr Graham and that the reportage reflects this. In addition some of Dr Graham’s submissions are based on her subjective selection of findings and statements from the many decisions and determinations that have been made in the course of the proceedings and to an objective observer seem to represent an over-optimistic view of the outcomes.

15. The Press Council is of the view that the report in question is accurate and that in the context of the long-running proceedings, it is neither unfair nor biased. It notes with approval Mr Kirkness’ offer of a final opportunity for Dr Graham to put forward her views once the court proceedings are complete. The complaint is not upheld.

16. Dr Graham has complained that the earlier Press Council determination contains negative and wrong information, is “full of mistakes” and has damaged her and her company’s reputation. She asks for it to be removed from the Press Council website. However she has not responded to a request to identify the mistakes.

17. The Press Council’s complaints process, which has at all times been available to Dr Graham (the form used by Dr Graham to lodge both her first and her second complaint is an appendix to the complaints process as published on the Press Council website), makes it clear that all decisions are made available on the Council’s website and are published in its annual report. A party may request non-publication, and in exceptional circumstances the Council will agree not to publish its decision. Dr Graham did not request non-publication at the time of the first complaint and in the Council’s view there are no exceptional circumstances that would warrant non-publication of its determination on either complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.