HELEN HINDMARSH AGAINST ROTORUA DAILY POST

Case Number: 2351

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Daily Post

Ruling Categories: Bias
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

1. Helen Hindmarsh complains that there was inaccuracy, unfairness and bias in the Rotorua Daily Post’s coverage of issues related to the recent local government elections.

2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.

Background

3. Ms Hindmarsh stood for election both as Mayor and as a councillor for the Rotorua District Council in the recent local body elections.

4. The Daily Post carried extensive coverage of the election campaigns and Ms Hindmarsh says that as early as January 2013 it was referring to certain people as mayoral candidates.

5. Before the election, the Daily Post announced that it would provide full coverage of the elections and the build-up to them, but it would not publish columns or letters to the editor written by candidates. It appears that it did provide considerable coverage, including the articles about which Ms Hindmarsh complains.

6. On 4 September it published a report of a mayoral forum, including three paragraphs about Ms Hindmarsh’s contribution:

• That Ms Hindmarsh and another mayoral candidate had not received questions to be put to the candidates and were unprepared.
• That Ms Hindmarsh was keen to promote Rotorua’s old motto of “tatou tatou” and the work she was doing on a museum.
• That “75 per cent of businesses in Rotorua were owned by a man from Taupo, which was not ideal”. Rotorua needed to work together to “remove the power this person has”. Earthquake strengthening requirements would make it even harder for retail to make a comeback.

7. On 19 September it reported another debate at which a straw poll was taken after the candidates had addressed the meeting but before they had answered questions, with the results given after the questions had been answered.

8. On 24 September there was a report of a further forum. Ms Hindmarsh was reported as

• Telling the audience of her background in martial arts and helping run a small business with her husband
• Saying “I am the yin to your yang . . . I meet the need to satisfy your want”
• Saying the Eastern Arterial route should be removed, Te Ngae Road upgraded and a new emphasis put on rail freight to the Port of Tauranga
• Telling the audience that leadership was all about inclusion and equality

9. On 25 September, the Daily Post published a column written by a person described as a political and media studies student based in Rotorua. The article included an invitation to readers to visit the author’s blog where he outlined his views on candidates for the local election. A second column by the same author was published on 3 October and also included the address of his blog.

Ms Hindmarsh’s complaints

10. It was unfair, biased and inaccurate to describe anyone as a mayoral candidate before they had been nominated (and before nominations had opened). The Daily Post had continuously reported Steve Chadwick’s views and policies and described her as a mayoral candidate since January 2013, thus giving her an unfair advantage over other candidates who might not yet have identified themselves.

11. It was unfair to refuse to publish letters from candidates in the “letters to the editor” column. This would stifle community debate on the issues relevant to the campaign.

12. The 4 and 24 September reports of speeches she made at mayoral forums are inaccurate, demonstrate bias against her and do not fairly reflect the content of her speeches. The 19 September article is also inaccurate.

The 4 September article

13. She had not received the questions before the meeting, but this did not mean that she was unprepared.

14. She mentioned the principle of “tatou tatou” in the context of the Eastern Arterial expressway and the need for a combined approach to NZTA.

15. Her reference to her museum project was one of three examples of her ability to plan long term. The report implied that she was seeking office in order to be in a position to promote the museum as a commercial project.

16. She said 75 percent of buildings in the CBD, not 75 percent of businesses, were owned by a man from Taupo. She did not make the remark about removing the man’s power, and her discussion of earthquake strengthening was in the context of landlords’ costs not retailers’ costs.

The 24 September article

17. The article reported her opening comments as if they were policy statements, while other candidates’ policies were treated more seriously.

18. It was discriminatory to report her 25 years of business ownership as helping run a business with her husband.

19. She had said that leadership was about inclusion and equality, not “all” about inclusion and equality.

The 19 September article.

20. After the straw poll had been taken, questions were asked of the candidates. Ms Hindmarsh says she was questioned aggressively about the remarks that had been misreported on 4 September and was able to “clear the air” about them. It was unfair to report that the poll had been taken after the questions. She had requested a correction of the article, but her request was declined.

21. On 25 September and on 3 October the Daily Post published articles in which readers were invited to visit a blog which contained offensive and disparaging remarks about her.

The Daily Post response

22. The Daily Post did not comment on the first complaint, having been advised by the Press Council Executive Director that it was out of time.

Letters to the editor

23. The editor of the Daily Post explained that he had decided to close the “letters to the editor” column to candidates as he wished to have it available for readers to discuss election issues. There were a large number of candidates and their campaigning letters would have dominated the small opinion pages. All candidates were given extensive and fair coverage.

The 4 September article

24. Two of the candidates had not received the questions and it was therefore accurate to say they had not been able to prepare answers.

25. There was only room to run a few points per speaker. The Daily Post would have been happy to address Ms Hindmarsh’s concerns, but she walked out of a meeting with the chief reporter and despite a request from the editor, did not provide specific examples of her concerns.

The 24 September article

26. Ms Hindmarsh ignored the part of the report that addressed some of her key policy points.

The 19 September article

27. The report was accurate. Ms Hindmarsh in incorrect in stating that the report said the poll was taken after questions.

The 25 September and 3 October articles

28. The complaint appears to be largely about the content of the blog, which is not the responsibility of the Daily Post. The articles ran on the opinion page in a spot always used for guest columns and are opinion pieces. The Daily Post presents a variety of voices in its clearly marked opinion pages and does not necessarily agree with or endorse the opinions expressed.

Discussion

29. Ms Hindmarsh’s first two complaints fall outside the time frame for making complaints as set out in the Press Council Principles. In general, complaints must be made within one month of the event complained about.

30. As a matter of general principle, there seems no reason why media should not refer to those who have declared their intention to stand for election as “candidates” nor why an editor should not limit access to the “letters to the editor” page for political candidates. It is important that all candidates are treated fairly and given an equal opportunity to put their views through local media, but the Daily Post’s policies appear to apply to all candidates, and from the material supplied by both parties to this complaint, it is clear that it gave extensive coverage to all the mayoral candidates and the debates in which they participated.

The 4 September article

31. It seems entirely reasonable to report that candidates have been disadvantaged by not being given advance notice of questions, and accurate to say that they are therefore unprepared. The context of the remark does not support Ms Hindmarsh’s contention that it meant she was generally unprepared for the forum or was unable to give effective answers to the questions.

32. There is more weight to her remaining complaints, particularly about the report that she was concerned to promote her museum project, with the implication that she was seeking office for personal gain. This and the “tatou tatou” remark appear to have been taken out of context. In addition, as Ms Hindmarsh states, it would be ridiculous to assert that 75% of businesses in Rotorua are owned by one person, but much more credible that 75% of CBD retail properties are in a single ownership.

33. It seems likely that there was a degree of inaccuracy in the 4 September article.

The 25 September article

34. Ms Hindmarsh has supplied the text of the address she gave on 24 September. It confirms the mention of her martial arts experience and the “”yin to your yang” remark. These were no doubt meant to attract the attention of the audience and set the context for her subsequent remarks. There seems no question of bias or unfairness in reporting them, particularly as the report goes on to describe some of her policies.

35. The report that Ms Hindmarsh told the audience about “helping run a small engineering and manufacturing business with her husband” is of more concern. It does not accurately describe her statement that she had been a business co-owner with her husband for 25 years.


The 19 September article

36. The report of the straw poll is accurate in that the article states that the result of the poll came after the questions from the floor. It does not say when the poll was taken. Ms Hindmarsh may or may not be right to imply that the result of the poll would have been different if it had been taken after the question and answer session, but the timing of the poll was not the Daily Post’s responsibility.

The 25 September and 3 October articles

37. These articles are clearly opinion pieces. They appear in a position reserved for opinion and it was made clear that the writer was not a Daily Post employee. The first column is about the local elections and in itself is unexceptionable, but it contains an invitation to visit a blog that includes negative views about Ms Hindmarsh’s candidacy. The second column is not about local politics at all, but incudes the same blog address.

38. The Daily Post is not responsible for the content of the blog, and neither does the Press Council have jurisdiction over it, so the only question is whether it should have permitted the writer to publish the link to the blog. Given that the material in the blog, while strongly expressed, is no more so than some opinions that are regularly published in the traditional media, there seems no point in considering this issue further.

The Daily Post response

39. Both Ms Hindmarsh and the Daily Post agree that as a result of her complaints about the 4 September article she was invited to meet the chief reporter but left the meeting before they had been fully discussed. She then emailed the editor and was invited to specify the incorrect statements in the report.

40. While Ms Hindmarsh responded to the invitation, she did not specify the inaccuracies beyond saying that “every statement attributed to me beyond not receiving the questions in advance was inaccurate.”

Conclusion

41. Ms Hindmarsh’s first two complaints are out of time for Press Council consideration. But as a general principle the Press Council endorses the editor’s right to close the letters column to candidates.

42. Most of the matters of which Ms Hindmarsh complains do not amount to a breach of the Press Council Principles.

43. There was a degree of inaccuracy in the report of the 4 September meeting, though not as much as claimed by Ms Hindmarsh. However she did not take up the two opportunities she was offered to specify her concerns and have them addressed – she left the meeting with the chief reporter and did not respond with appropriate detail to the editor’s email.

44. There remains the remark in the 24 September article about Ms Hindmarsh’s business experience. While this is of concern, it is not sufficient in itself to make a finding of inaccuracy or bias.

45. For these reasons the Press Council does not uphold Ms Hindmarsh’s complaints

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.