GRAHAME ANDERSON AGAINST WAIMEA WEEKLY

Case Number: 2046

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waimea Weekly

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Grahame Anderson about an article published in the Waimea Weekly newspaper on 2 July 2008.

Background
Grahame Anderson, one of the opponents of a plan by the Tasman District Council to contribute funds towards a performing arts centre in Richmond, complained to the Press Council that a newspaper article headlined: Centre plan was “deal of the century”, described him as one of “a group of terrorists”.

The article said Grace Church, builders of the centre, had withdrawn its request for funding because of “negativity” surrounding the project by a small group of ratepayers. Quoting disappointed supporters of the plan, the article said the loss of Council involvement was “a lost opportunity and a railroading of the issue by ‘a group of terrorists’” that had set Richmond back in its hopes for a quality performing arts centre.

The Complaint
Mr Anderson said the newspaper had “trebly” identified him among a “group of terrorists” because he was a founding member of the Richmond Community Forum – a group that had questioned the proposal, he had voted to seek a deferral of funding at a Forum meeting, and was the author of several letters to the editor asking questions of the Council.

He wrote to the newspaper’s editor, seeking a front-page withdrawal of the remark and an apology to him and to everyone to whom the remark had been directed.

He said the refusal of the editor to withdraw the remark and apologise left him with an implied reputation as a so-called terrorist on public record and could cause difficulties for him in his professional visits overseas.

The Newspaper’s Response
This is one of two complaints about the same article from people who claim they have been labelled as terrorists. The newspaper’s editor has written one response to cover both complaints.

The editor said the newspaper did not print Mr Anderson’s name in association with the terrorist comment, nor did it hint that he or the other complainant were involved at all. Mr Anderson and the other complainant named themselves in letters to the editor objecting to the article.

He said the terrorist comment was made after a meeting of local citizens on both sides of the argument by a person “heavily involved in the situation and a person of very high standing”.

The editor said Grace Church had withdrawn its request for Council funding because of “intense negativity and intimidation”. The “terrorist” comment accurately described the frustration of one-half of those at the meeting.

He said both sides of the argument were given an opportunity to comment before the article went to print, with only one person from the group of opponents willing to go on the record.

Response
In response to the editor, Mr Anderson disputed the account of the public meeting. He said at the only public meeting to be held on the matter there had been a unanimous show of hands to request the Tasman District Council to defer funding.

Discussion
This is a local issue in which feelings have run high. The Tasman District Council’s plan to provide a church with ratepayer money towards the building of a performing arts centre generated enough heat to cause the church to withdraw its application for funds.

It’s the job of a local newspaper to report issues of this kind, and central to this story was why the church pulled out of the funding arrangement. It was legitimate for the newspaper to report the reaction of the losers – in their words. The “group of terrorists” comment was attributed to unnamed disappointed supporters of the funding idea.

The article did not name any of so-called “group of terrorists”, but it is accepted that people following the issue in newspaper reports or letters to the editor columns might have been able to suggest names of group members.

Nevertheless, the “group of terrorists” comment is hyperbole. It is strong language but consistent with the tone of other exchanges in this argument. The context is a row of local body funding; no-one reading the article is encouraged to interpret the comment in any other light. The first paragraph of the story not only contains the contentious statement, it provides the context – “a group of terrorists has set Richmond back in its hopes for a performing arts centre”.

The Council did not accept that the use of the phrase “group of terrorists” in the article would jeopardise overseas travel.

Conclusion
The Press Council believes it is duty of newspapers to encourage debate and recognises that freedom of speech can be raw. Among the Council’s guiding principles, there is none more important than freedom of expression. It does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Lynn Scott and Alan Samson

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.