HON PETER DUNNE AGAINST THE DOMINION POST
Case Number: 2096
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2009
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: The Dominion Post
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
The sidebar was printed on the front page of the 31 October edition of The Dominion Post.
It carried a head-only photograph of Mr Dunne with the words Spousal Abuse (in bold type) immediately below his image.
A single sentence provided the context: “Three Government ministers confirm taxpayers footed the bill for their partners to travel with them overseas – defying the prime minister’s edict to stay home or pay their own way.”
Readers were directed to page A2 for the full story.
Initially Mr Dunne complained to the newspaper (via his lawyer). When he failed to obtain a retraction and apology, he made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
He contended that “Spousal Abuse” was obviously inaccurate. It referred to domestic violence and the inference that he had hit his wife was false. He was deeply offended and the newspaper was being malicious.
He further argued that even if “abuse” referred to using taxpayer funding for his wife to accompany him on international travel, the term was inaccurate because the Funding Entitlements for the House of Representatives and its Members were “absolutely clear that my wife is entitled to a rebate on private air travel” (Mr Dunne).
The claim that “taxpayers footed the bill for their partners to accompany them overseas” was also inaccurate because firstly, the taxpayer had not paid the whole bill and secondly, because “the taxpayer funding in question operates on a rebate basis for expenses incurred personally”.
He also disputed that his actions were in defiance of the Prime Minister’s “edict”. The Prime Minister had “informed” Ministers that Ministerial Services would no longer pay for spouses accompanying Ministers on official overseas travel but this did not mean there was an “edict” against using an alternative i.e. Parliamentary Services.
In short, both the headline and the text failed the test of accuracy.
He explained that he had declined the offer of a right-of-reply letter because he wanted the newspaper to take responsibility for its “objectionable” behaviour and because he would not have control over any context in which his letter might be published.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor explained that media investigation of MPs’ expenses had created considerable public concern.
She referred to the role of the press in exposing Parliament’s spending of taxpayer money. Such scrutiny included MPs using perks of office, even if rules governing such use had not been infringed.
The Prime Minister had announced, in June, that Ministers had been told they were not to take spouses on overseas travel, “unless they paid their own way”.
She stressed that “Spousal Abuse” was a play on words, a pun, which would give the phrase, because of its context, a different meaning.
There was a link between “spousal” (Ministers using public money to allow spouses/partners to accompany them on overseas travel) and “abuse” (such use might be seen by the public as an abuse of position, especially given the public statements by the Prime Minister).
She argued that the context, the accompanying sentence, made it clear that the issue was misuse of taxpayer money, not that Mr Dunne was a perpetrator of domestic violence.
The statement that Mr Dunne was “defying the Prime Minister’s edict” was true at the time of October 31 although later Mr Key seemed to step back a little from his earlier position. He was reported (Nov 3) as saying that “he did not believe the ministers were deliberately flouting his orders, as Government was not paying – Parliament was”.
The complainant was not entitled to quote what had only emerged later to complain about what had been published earlier.
In any case, the Prime Minister had said “any member that chooses to use their travel discount to take their spouse … needs to be able to stack that up against public opinion”.
She noted that the sidebar pointed to a detailed article within the newspaper and the headline had to be read in context with that full story.
Mr Dunne argued that the newspaper had not known the details of the Prime Minister’s June “advice” to Ministers though it had constantly referred to an “edict” and had continued that assertion as fact. Advice was not an “edict”.
He could not be accused of defying any edict when he had checked with the Prime Minister’s office and been told that it was “perfectly proper” for his wife to utilise her travel entitlement through Parliamentary Services.
The editor explained that the word “abuse” applied to Mr Dunne taking advantage of a perk, even a perk clearly within the Parliamentary Services rules.
She noted that the Prime Minister had maintained his June position when he re-iterated (October 6): “I’ve said to my ministers who are taking their spouses – ‘Pay for it yourself’”.
Despite this widely reported comment, three Ministers had used public money to pay for spouses to travel with them and the public was entitled to know.
The newspaper had never suggested that any rule had been broken. For example, the headline to the article of October 31 read “Ministers ‘Entitled’ to dip into public purse.”
Discussion and Decision
The core of Mr Dunne’s complaint is that readers would have thought he had assaulted his wife the moment they saw “Spousal Abuse”.
If that headline had been printed on its own, this complaint would have been upheld.
However, it is the Council’s view that the sentence appearing directly below “Spousal Abuse” provides such an immediate context that the headline can only be read as leading to a report about taxpayers paying for spouses to travel with ministers. Word play is a common feature of newspaper headlines, and, the Council has previously allowed some licence for headlines.
In addition, the detailed report on Page 2 provided extensive explanation and background for the abrupt headline for the front page sidepanel.
The Council accepts that Mr Dunne was offended, especially when he was singled out for attention by featuring his photograph. “Spousal abuse” is hardly “good natured banter”, as suggested by The Dominion Post.
The complainant also accuses the newspaper of inaccuracy in referring to an “edict” that Ministers should pay for their spouses to travel overseas with them.
The Prime Minister gave a press conference in late June where he explained that Ministerial Services would no longer pay for spouses/partners accompanying Ministers on overseas travel. This was widely reported as a “ban” or an “edict” against this practice, and neither the Prime Minister nor anyone from his office seems to have wished to correct the term.
The Prime Minister himself publicly reiterated that position on October 6 when he said, “… I’ve said to my ministers who are taking their spouses – ‘Pay for it yourself’.”
The Prime Minister also referred to the “ban” on official ministerial spousal travel when he defended three ministers who had used their parliamentary travel perk to take spouses/partners on such trips.
The Council accepts that The Dominion Post was entitled to use the term “edict” in its reports on this issue, at least until the Prime Minister later (Nov 3) said he was “not unhappy” about ministers using the Parliamentary Services perk.
For these reasons, this complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.