IAN EDWARDS AGAINST THE NORTHERN ADVOCATE

Case Number: 2097

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Northern Advocate

Ruling Categories: Confidentiality
Columnists

Ian Edwards, of Paihia, complained that a Northern Advocate columnist behaved unethically by using information gained from a casual conversation in a fishing column published on August 26, 2009.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint
Mr Edwards, a teacher, told his workmates about a recent fishing trip. Present in the staff room was a relieving teacher, who was also a sometime fishing columnist for The Northern Advocate.

The next day (Tuesday) the columnist advised Mr Edwards he intended using some of the information in his column. Mr Edwards was upset that a conversation that he had considered to be private was to be published. The columnist is reported to have said “too bad” and the Press Council is advised the conversation “continued in a robust manner”, before the columnist apologised.

The material was published and Mr Edwards complained to the editor, about the unethical behaviour of the columnist.

Mr Edwards advised he did not know the relief teacher was also a columnist for the newspaper; that he considered conversations in a staff room should be regarded as confidential and that the story should not have gone to print without his approval.

The Newspaper’s Response
Craig Cooper, editor of The Northern Advocate, said that had Mr Edwards advised the newspaper in time the paragraph could have been removed from the column. As it was this advice came too late.

Mr Cooper, while noting that he did not regard such a conversation as confidential but rather a common source of inspiration or material for columnists, apologised to Mr Edwards largely for the behaviour of the columnist.

He said the columnist had been reminded that, where practicable, he should advise people if information was to be used; that he should consult the editor if people were unhappy with the situation and that he should not “inflame the situation.” Although a part-time employee he was still representing the newspaper.

He noted that the material complained about was innocuous and did not identify Mr Edwards.

Discussion
Unusually, this complaint is not concerned with the actual words published, but rather the way in which the information was gathered.
The newspaper contends the school staff room is a public place, and that the lunchroom scenario described is a common source of information for columnists. However, it is not a public place - those present were there by virtue of their employment, nothing else. The columnist was only there because of his primary role, as a relieving teacher. Mr Edwards says he did not know the relief teacher was also writing for the newspaper.

The Press Council observes that columnists frequently draw on experiences in their daily lives to provide content for their columns. The complainant was, however, aggrieved by the way the columnist obtained the information. Had his concerns been brought to the attention of the editor immediately, the paragraph could have been omitted.
No harm was done in this instance and the information published was inoffensive. The source was not identified and indeed the complainant has not taken issue with the actual words published.
The Council notes that the paper has taken remedial action against the columnist and has apologised to Mr Edwards. Under the circumstances the Council considers the editor’s actions sufficient remedy.
The 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, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.