HELENE RITCHIE AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2003

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2007

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

Background
The Press Council has upheld a complaint on the grounds of inaccuracy about two articles in The Dominion Post – as well as a third appearing during the complaints process - that report on Wellington City councillor Helene Ritchie’s attendance record and remuneration while on sick leave for breast cancer.

1. The first (April 17) article - headed Work by sick councillor a rort, says Shaw - proceeds from deputy mayor Alick Shaw’s charge that Cr Ritchie regularly missed council meetings (from which she had been granted sick leave), but regularly turned up for work at her other constituent body, Capital and Coast District Health Board (which does not have sick leave provisions for elected representatives).

2. The second (July 7) article, Eye on council meeting attendance, an analysis of council attendance statistics, including graphs of councillor attendance headed The Best and the Rest … (percentage of meetings attended) concludes with two paragraphs addressing Cr Ritchie’s attendance, which it marks bottom of the list. No timeframe is included for the figures in either graph or article, though the relevant council tables supplied by Cr Ritchie are labelled as being for the period from April 1, 2006, to March 31, 2007.

3. Subsequent to Cr Ritchie’s initial complaint, a third (August 31) article, Ratepayers want accountability was published containing further reference to her having the worst council meeting attendance record. This time, the figures were reported as data for the previous three year period. The newspaper ran a correction on September 5.

Complaint

Cr Ritchie contests implications she earned more than $70,000 on sick leave; the timing of her return to council duties; and says reporting that she returned to council “after the DomPost revealed she was turning up for work at Capital and Coast District Health Board while still on sick leave”, was defamatory. As a published letter to the editor had made clear, she had two months leave of absence from the Health Board, did not attend, and was not paid. Her return to the council and the board had nothing to do with the DomPost revelations.

She also says the paper misrepresented her council attendance rate, reporting she had attended 36 per cent of meetings when council tables clearly showed a 36.2 per cent figure only in terms of minutes attended at meetings. Her meeting attendance is identified in the tables as 45.5 per cent. The third article says she turned up for 36.2 per cent of meetings over the past three years, when the council figures are April 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007.

After the first article Cr Ritchie issued a press statement (April 17) saying Cr Shaw’s attacks on her, as well as reflecting an irrational obsession with her life, contained numerous errors of fact. “For example, I asked for, and was kindly granted, four month’s leave of absence from council, not a year. And, more recently, my two months’ leave from the health board was unpaid.”

On May 6, through lawyers Oakley Moran seeking an “acknowledgement of the relevant facts and an apology”, as well as payment of costs, she set out the following:

i. After diagnosis of her illness, she had sought leave from the council because legal advice made it clear she could still attend council meetings and vote. But in respect of the health board, she had been advised she might be able to attend meetings, but would not be able to participate or vote. She accordingly did not seek leave.
ii. She was subsequently granted leave by the council for the period February 22 to June 22, 2006. Though on leave, she undertook some limited advocacy and other duties on behalf of constituents. During her leave, she was paid $23,567.
iii. In respect of the board, to preserve her membership and her ability to vote during the term of her council leave, she attended all but one of its monthly meetings in 2006. Because of her ill-health, her attendance had been “difficult”.
iv. Between February 11 and April 13, 2007, she had taken an additional period of leave from the board, for further recovery. She was not paid during this time.
v. On February 12, for like reasons, she arranged not to attend council meetings till April.

Cr Ritchie says her April 17 statement was “not published”, and the remedy-seeking lawyers’ letter (6 May) received no reply. She then wrote a 200-word letter to the editor, restating her upset at Cr Shaw’s charges and setting out her attendance record, which was published (9 May).

After the second article she wrote another brief letter that was not published.

She says she had a (July 4) conversation with the reporter after he rang her “to be fair”, and seeking comment at short notice. She questioned the reporter’s judgment of timeframes of her absences and, in particular, that he had included in his percentages a period when she was on approved leave to recover from her illness.

Separating the leave period, she told him, her attendance had been 88.1 per cent (later confirmed by the council to be 89.6 per cent). But he had chosen not to use this information.

She says he had been given information by the council that showed she was in fact present – including leave period – for 45.5 per cent of the time, but he had “chosen” to represent this as 36.2 per cent. The errors were repeated, despite having received information to the contrary.

Newspaper’s response

In response, Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst points out that Cr Ritchie, as an elected representative, could be deemed a person of public interest.

On a matter of “considerable debate among councillors”, it was clear Cr Shaw had a different stance on the issue from Cr Ritchie. “The newspaper has no view on whether Mr Shaw’s honest opinion is right or wrong; it is not our role to judge the merits of various councillors’ professional or personal debates. Our job is to inform our readers of the debate on the subject and in this case we have done so independently in every respect of our coverage.”

In respect of the April 17 article, with reference to the Press Council’s Statement of Principles, Mr Pankhurst notes:

i. The paper had carefully adhered to principles of accuracy, fairness and balance. Cr Shaw’s contention re Cr Ritchie’s attendance at health board meetings had been checked and verified by board chairwoman Judith Aitken, confirming her attendance at “most board meetings”.
ii. Cr Ritchie had been given the right to respond in a “spat” between two “seasoned councillors” on a subject each held differing views on.
iii. The $75,000 salary identified in the introduction was an extrapolation of a figure used in an earlier (July 15, 2006) article which stated: “Ms Ritchie was on leave for four months, during which she was paid $25,000 by the council”.
iv. In objecting to the publication of Cr Shaw’s criticisms, Cr Ritchie appeared to wish to muzzle fair and balanced reporting of a newsworthy debate, on a subject readers deserved to know about.
v. The paper had been careful to make a distinction between Cr Shaw’s comments and fact, carefully attributing to him his comments alleging a rort.
vi. Cr Ritchie’s letter to the editor had been published, in full and at the earliest opportunity.

In respect of the July 7 article, Mr Pankhurst notes:

i. There was no attempt to deliberately and maliciously target Cr Ritchie. Using both the total percentage of meetings attended, and figures based on the total number of minutes of each meeting attended, was to enable comparison of remuneration with attendance.
ii. The graphic was created around minutes spent at meetings to give a better appreciation of councillors’ diligence. Its heading, The Most Diligent: Percentage of meetings attended, might have been confusing, but the overall import of the graphic was accurate. And Ms Ritchie had had the opportunity to correct any errors before the material was supplied to the newspaper.
iii. The detail was a matter of public record and the paper was duty-bound to tell readers about Cr Ritchie’s sick leave; failure to do so would have unfairly left readers mistakenly thinking she was failing to attend.
iv. The published article contained an editing error in suggesting Cr Ritchie returned to work in June, when the paper had previously reported she resumed her duties in April, but this did not constitute a “malicious campaign” against her.

Mr Pankhurst says Cr Ritchie had been responsibly reported during the period, in a range of articles in which she had always been afforded the opportunity to comment. She was clearly unhappy at Cr Shaw’s criticism of her and the system relating to sick leave for health board members, but both issues had been canvassed in a responsible and balanced fashion.

Additional responses

After detailed comment on what she describes as “extraneous matter” in Mr Pankhurst’s reply, Cr Ritchie sets her complaints against the Council’s Statement of Principles:
i. Accuracy: on top of various inaccuracies, she says, the paper was unfair and unbalanced for repeatedly publishing inaccurate information and for not giving her sufficient space to reply.
ii. Corrections: the paper did not publish corrections.
iii. Comment and fact: she argues was no distinction.
iv. Subterfuge: the editor was sanctioning misrepresentation and attempting to avoid censure by evading the issue.
v. Headlines and caption: the Work by sick councillor a rort, says Shaw did not accurately convey the unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair substance of the report.
vi. Letters: A letter to the editor (July 13) was not published.

In her supporting words, Cr Ritchie says Mr Pankhurst has deliberately cited only one of the periods of her Health Board leave (that taken in the year of the two articles was unpaid); the first article was not balanced in terms of tone or number of words assigned each party; the “rort” headline was defamatory; and the implication she received $75,000 a year salary on sick leave, was not only incorrect, but “maliciously misleading”.

She rejects Mr Pankhurst’s claim that the newspaper has fairly reported a difference between her and Cr Shaw, and that her argument should therefore be with Cr Shaw. Her complaint is solely about the paper’s reporting.

Noting the third article to appear (August 31), she says: “There continues to be published this incorrect information leading to a very unfair situation for me.”

Replying in Mr Pankhurst’s absence, Dominion Post deputy editor Nick Wrench absolutely disputes Cr Ritchie’s complaints as set against Press Council principles regarding corrections, comment and fact, subterfuge, headlines and captions, and letters. On the principle of accuracy, he concedes the July 7 article incorrectly suggested she returned to work in June, though the correct date had been previously reported; and that the August 31 article contained a “subsequent inaccuracy” that had been “voluntarily corrected”.

He defends his paper’s persistence with the 36.2 percentage figure, saying it represented the percentage of total meeting time attended, as shown in the graphic.

Of the error in the latest (August 31) article, he explains: “Two newspaper staff have been involved in preparing a response to Ms Ritchie’s complaint: Editor Tim Pankhurst and Deputy Chief Reporter Oskar Alley. Both are currently on scheduled leave (the editor is overseas) and neither were at work when the August 31 article was published. Both staff play a role in assessing articles submitted for publication and were aware of Ms Ritchie’s complaint. If either had been at work, the error relating to Ms Ritchie’s attendance figures would have been picked up and corrected before publication.” He also says: “It would be unfair to Ms Ritchie for us not to promptly correct an incorrect figure and we have done so.”

Discussion

Cr Ritchie has provided copies of the council-supplied information showing her meeting attendance at 45.5 percent.

The Dominion Post’s responses noticeably still assume that the 36.2 per cent figure as presented in the second article is a correct one. To take that stance requires an understanding that “attended 36 per cent of meetings” can be read as meaning, “attended 36 per cent of the total minutes the meetings comprised”. That that would have been the understanding of ordinary readers is an unlikely scenario.

On the timing of Cr Ritchie’s return to work, Mr Pankhurst concedes an editing error. The paper had previously reported the correct date.

Cr Ritchie’s concern at the reports she was turning up for work at the health board while still on sick leave from the council, bringing possible implications of dereliction of duty, are understandable. But the first article, the only one of the two to substantially focus on her attendance, is clearly a report of a charge made by a fellow councillor, deputy mayor Alick Shaw. It also carefully includes prominent balancing comment from Cr Ritchie.

Other concerns raised by Cr Ritchie include the non-publication of a press statement. In fact, the paper responded as quickly as practicable by publishing a letter containing much the same detail after seeking legal advice – any delay a routine one after an accusation of defamation. Non-reply to her subsequent lawyers’ letter and the non-publication of another brief letter from her may have been ill-advised but, given the amount of space given to both sides of the subject, does not warrant an uphold. The error contained in the third article is defended by the paper on the grounds that its senior staff in the know, who might normally have been expected to correct the mistake, were on leave. Once made aware of it, the newspaper promptly corrected the error in the 31 August article.


The reporter’s seeking of comment at short notice on a subject the councillor was obviously deeply familiar with, was not untoward, given her position as a public figure. Similarly, it would be drawing a very long bow to judge the newspaper as malicious for legitimately addressing questions of councillor attendance.

The Press Council similarly cannot uphold on the suggestion of subterfuge when there is no indication of deliberate deceit, nor over headlines, when the following copy addressed the reported accusation. Further, there was no untoward blurring of comment and fact; and the principle of failing to publish corrections is difficult to apply when most of the errors remained a matter of dispute.

Cr Ritchie has valid reason for complaint, however, about a newspaper introduction (in the first article) implying she had earned $75,000 on sick leave. The $75,000 referred to is, according to Mr Pankhurst, an extrapolation of a year’s salary calculated on the basis of figures printed in an earlier, unchallenged article. But this ignores the fact that her sick leave from the council was of a considerably lower order, producing a smaller figure. While it could be argued the stated figure was annualised and, on that basis, (approximately) correct, readers could have assumed that she had been paid the sum while on sick leave for a year. The error is compounded in the second article, with the outright assertion she “attended 36 per cent of meetings while still earning $72,719”.

Cr Ritchie also has valid reason for complaint about incorrect figures in the second article. The article states she attended 36[.2] per cent of meetings. However, the council tables clearly show the figure described minutes of attendance - her meeting attendance was, in fact, 45.5 per cent.

The mistakes are even more seriously compounded in the third article, with the added error that the repeated “36.2 per cent of meetings” attendance was measured over the past three years. This timeframe is demonstrably wrong according to the Council tables.

The Press Council turns to the statement in the July 7 article that Cr Ritchie “returned to work a month ago, after The Dominion Post revealed she was turning up for work at the health board while on sick leave”. As with the statistics, there are possible grounds for reading ambiguity. The sentence could be read simply as a chronology. Readers are more likely, however, to have concluded that she returned only because the newspaper had “revealed” that she had been absent from the council while attending health board meetings. In fact she resumed her places at both the council and the board in April after an agreed period of two months leave. The statement is accordingly incorrect and misleading.

Conclusion

Cr Ritchie’s complaints about lack of balance, corrections, comment and fact, headlines and captions, letters, and subterfuge, as well as the charge of malice, for the reasons given above, are not upheld.

But in its April 17 article, The Dominion Post has carelessly implied Cr Ritchie has earned $75,000 on sick leave. Read precisely, the introduction is a statement of an annualised figure, but that detail is ambiguous. It is also written as fact, without the attribution that validates the even stronger headline: Work by sick councillor a rort, says Shaw. Only half the statistical story is told. The error has been magnified by repetition.

The paper has also erred in using the 36.2 per cent figure to describe her meeting attendance instead of the 45.5 per cent figure. Again, this error is magnified by repetition.

Moreover, it was misleading to overlook that the councillor had fully explained the reasons why she wished to take two months additional leave at the beginning of 2007 and that she had resumed her council and board seats as intended in April. To imply otherwise – that she returned in effect because of “revelations” in the newspaper – was unfortunate.

The Press Council has previously ruled that public figures have to withstand scrutiny at a higher level. The attempt by The Dominion Post to analyse and judge councillor attendance rates was entirely justifiable. Any member of a public body who appears to be absent from a large number of meetings deserves to be held up to scrutiny, and the paper cannot be criticised for investigating Cr Ritchie’s performance, even in the context of her experience with cancer. But in its scrutiny of a public figure, the newspaper should have been scrupulously accurate. In this instance, The Dominion Post was not.