HAYDEN WOODS AGAINST TE AWAMUTU COURIER

Case Number: 2539

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Te Awamutu Courier

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Bias
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Overview

  1. Hayden Woods complains that the Te Awamutu Courier has displayed bias and has failed to maintain a neutral stance towards the Waipa District Council in its reporting of the Council’s proposal to install water meters and in its treatment of those opposed to the proposal. In addition, he complains that it has failed to correct factual inaccuracies
  2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. It is clear from the material supplied by Mr Woods that there have been long-standing problems with the water supply in Te Awamutu and in some other parts of the area covered by the Waipa District Council.

4. The Council appears to have decided in 2012 to install water meters in those parts of its district where they had not already been installed. In drafting its 10-year plan for 2012-2022 the Council included measures intended to address the water issues and among other things reinforced its view that water meters were needed.

5. From 2012 the Te Awamutu Courier reported extensively on the water issues and on the 10 year plan. It also published correspondence from Mr Woods and others both in favour of and opposed to the Council’s proposals.

6. The immediate cause of Mr Woods’ complaint to the Press Council was a report in the issue of July 5, 2016 stating that work was about to commence on the installation of water meters. The report included a statement that it was a requirement from the Waikato Regional Council that water meters be installed in Te Awamutu by December 31, 2022 as part of the water take consent. It continued “While that does not obligate Waipa to put meters in Cambridge or Kihikihi, council believes meters are essential to help defer the cost of infrastructure across the district.”

The Complaint

7. Mr Woods complains that the Te Awamutu Courier has published “multiple manipulated press releases” put out by the Council and that many of the press releases contain factual inaccuracies and manipulated data. He says the editor has been confronted on numerous occasions about the inaccuracies and about conflicting information in the press releases and has done nothing.

8. He submits as evidence of bias

  • the failure of the editor to investigate his allegations
  • the refusal to print any recent correspondence disputing the factual accuracy of the press releases
  • The failure to print a retraction of factually inaccurate information after being given evidence of the inaccuracy.

9. He identifies five points in the article that he disputes:

  • Work will commence next month to install water meters to properties without them following Waipa District Council’s decision to award the $3.9 million contract to Allens United Earthworks and Drainage.
  • It was a requirement from the Waikato Regional Council that water meters be installed in Te Awamutu by December 31, 2022 as part of the water take consent. While that does not obligate Waipa to put meters in Cambridge or Kihikihi, council believes meters are essential to help defer the cost of infrastructure across the district.
  • Waipa’s water strategy depends on everyone using less water and meters are the best option to drive down demand
  • Without meters Council estimates that it would be forced to spend an additional $8 million on treatment plant upgrades sooner rather than later
  • With the additional cost to put in meters, reducing the demand for water will help save ratepayers around $220,000 per year in operating costs.

The Response

10. The immediate response of Dean Taylor, the editor of the Te Awamutu Courier, was to say that the publication stood by the information it had published and would not make any retraction.

11. In responding in more detail to the Press Council, Mr Taylor said he believed theTe Awamutu Courier had fully covered all sides of the argument over water meters. It had reported on all the decisions made by the Council along with their rationale and the opportunities for the public to have a say on the matter. It had also published numerous letters arguing for and against water meters and had welcomed comments from elected representatives, candidates and Council staff.

12. Mr Taylor also commented on the manner in which Mr Woods had pursued his concerns about the Council, in particular on the history of his contact with theTe Awamutu Courier which had been characterised by a large volume of correspondence, the publication of many letters from him and other correspondents with both similar and opposing views, and his refusal to accept any views contrary to his own.

The Decision

13. It is clear that Mr Woods is strongly of the view that the installation of water meters is purely a revenue-gathering exercise on the part of the Waipa District Council, that they are not needed to address the water supply problems and that the Council is failing to take measures that would successfully remedy the problems. He also believes that there has been a degree of dishonesty in the way the Council has pursued its agenda. To that extent Mr Woods’ dispute is with the Council and not with theTe Awamutu Courier.

14. It is also clear that the combative spirit in which Mr Woods has pursued his concerns has been counterproductive and that his cause has not been assisted by the overwhelming amount of repetitive correspondence that he has sent to theTe Awamutu Courier.

15. Mr Woods’ concerns about the Te Awamutu Courier have three main points of focus –

  • It is reporting material that is factually incorrect and refusing to correct or retract those reports
  • It refuses to investigate the allegations made by Mr Woods about the Waipa District Council
  • It refuses to print letters to the editor disputing the content of Council press releases.

16. So far as the second and third points are concerned, decisions on investigations to be undertaken and on letters to be published are largely the prerogative of an editor. There is no obligation to investigate allegations made by members of the public, regardless of the strength or otherwise of the supporting evidence. Equally, there is no obligation to publish letters to the editor, provided the editor is, as required by the Press Council principles, guided by fairness, balance and the public interest in deciding which letters to publish.

17. The water meter controversy is clearly a matter of public interest in the Te Awamutu region. In this case the Press Council has sighted numerous letters from Mr Woods that have been published in theTe Awamutu Courier in recent times, including several on the topic of water meters. Letters from others on the same or similar topics have also been published. There is no obligation on an editor to publish all letters submitted, and the Press Council is of the view that the choice of letters for publication in this case shows a fair and balanced approach by the editor.

18. The article that was the immediate subject of Mr Woods’ complaint was a report that work was about to start on the installation of water meters. It was obviously based on information supplied by the Council but it distinguished appropriately between fact, such as the process of sending out mock invoices, and the Council’s opinion on matters such as the savings to be expected from the use of water meters. Most of the points made by Mr Woods in his complaint are about the Council’s views of the benefits of water meters and not about factual statements.

19. Mr Woods takes particular issue with the statement that it was a requirement of the Waikato Regional Council that water meters be installed in Te Awamutu by the end of 2022. However the Press Council has sighted a copy of the decisions report of the hearings committee on the Te Awamutu and Pirongia water supply consent conditions and notes the statement at paragraph 8 on page 7 that “the consent holder as per the Waipa District Council 2012-22 Long term Plan shall by 31 December 2022, install water meters on all users of the water supply.”

20. There were undoubtedly other reasons for the Council’s decision to install water meters. Those reasons had been well canvassed in earlier articles and letters in theTe Awamutu Courier, and no doubt also in Council debates and consultations. Given the extensive nature of the earlier reporting, there was no need to cover this ground again.

21. Much of the material that Mr Woods has submitted and many of his concerns relate to the history of the water meter controversy over the past four to five years. Most, if not all, of the material published by theTe Awamutu Courier dates from early 2016 and earlier and is out of time for consideration by the Press Council. However the Council would like to record that in its view the reporting has been fair, balanced and generally in accordance with Press Council principles.

22. The complaint is not upheld.

Decision

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens,