JACKIE ELLIOTT AGAINST KAPITI NEWS

Case Number: 2483

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Kapiti News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Jackie Elliott complained about lack of balance in the reporting by Kapiti News of a story about the relationship between Kapiti Coast District Council (KCDC) and the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) organisation.

The complaint is upheld.

Background

White Ribbon is an international campaign to end men’s violence towards women, run by the WRC Trust in New Zealand. Rob McCann is the Trust’s campaign manager and Ric Odom is the Auckland-based National Chair of WRC.

The KCDC first described itself as a “White Ribbon Council” and a supporter of the WRC in 2007, under a previous Council and Mayor. Apparently following a request from the complainant, Mr McCann wrote to KCDC around October/November, 2015, to ask the Council to stop using the White Ribbon Council description for the time being. He asked the KCDC to wait until it had been authorised to use the title by the WRC, through a “workplace strategy” process, which is being trialled by WRC.The complainant had made a number of complaints about bullying against the KCDC.

In early November, 2015, KCDC issued to the media an account of a visit to the Council by Mr Odom, of the KCDC’s past support of WRC and of the intention of Mr Odom and KCDC to continue co-operation on WRC work. The release did not mention the letter from Mr McCann asking the Council to stop using the term “White Ribbon Council”.

Kapiti News (an NZME. free community newspaper, widely distributed in Kapiti) reported the KCDC media release on November 11 with a headline “Collaborative Approach to Campaign”. TheKapiti News report did not mention the complainant’s views and allegations about KCDC, which she had earlier (apparently also in early November) provided to the newspaper and other media outlets. Nor did it mention Mr McCann’s letter or any of its content.

On November 12, Stuff.co.nz ran a story headlined “Kapiti Coast District Council’s White Ribbon Status Questioned”, reporting the content of Mr McCann’s letter and saying that the letter was leaked to news media.

In addition to the stories about the White Ribbon issue in the Kapiti News and on Stuff, there was reporting of the issue inKapiti Independent, an online site, which inter alia said KCDC had released a “cleverly crafted press release that attempted to downplay and ignore the contents of the original White Ribbon letter”.

The Kapiti Observer (also a widely distributed, free, Kapiti community newspaper, linked to Fairfax/Stuff) reported both sides of the story on 12 November, with the headline “Council’s White Ribbon Status Questioned”, covering the McCann letter and the complainant’s allegations of bullying against the KCDC.

It also reported Mr McCann as saying “White Ribbon had been reluctant to get involved in the council dispute, hoping it would be sorted out in chambers”. Mr Odom was reported as saying “We are working with the Council as we always have, and are looking forward to signing our mutual commitment to the white ribbon pledge”.

The Complaint

Ms Elliott, who is a KCDC Councillor, complained to the Press Council in a letter received on December 4, 2015. She has not cited breaches of specific Principles. Her complaint againstKapiti News mainly concerns the issues of accuracy, fairness and balance in reporting the White Ribbon issue.

Her complaint is about the KCDC’s failure to mention in its press release the request from Mr McCann to KCDC to stop using the White Ribbon Council description in the meantime, and the failure ofKapiti News to mention in its story Mr McCann’s letter, her own views and allegations or to investigate further.

In her public communications and those with the Press Council, the complainant has also made a variety of charges against the KCDC, including alleged incidents of intimidation, bullying, harassment of herself, threats of withdrawal of advertising revenue from Kapiti News and lack of transparency. These matters are largely outside the brief of the Press Council. She has also subsequently suggested that theKapiti News might have received an offer of “treating” in return for positive coverage of the WRC.

The Response

The editor responds that Kapiti News received an open letter to various media from the complainant (Ms Elliott says it was sent on 4 November) about the White Ribbon Campaign and further allegations about KCDC bullying.

The editor regarded the allegations as unsubstantiated and chose not to print them. He says he subsequently received a leaked email, containing a letter from Mr McCann about the suspension of KCDC’s WRC status. Although he says he prepared a story based on the leaked email it did not go to print because the timeframe was too tight to get a balancing response from KCDC.

Instead, in the issue of November 11, Kapiti News reported the KCDC media release. The editor says he then asked Mr McCann if he would write a public statement clarifying the KCDC’s status in relation to the WRC. Although he agreed initially, in the end Mr McCann declined to provide a statement. Mr McCann told the editor (as he had said in the now public letter to KCDC) that the issue was something they wanted the Council to deal with in-house and to focus coverage of WRC on the actual message and not on councillors using White Ribbon as a tool in a council dispute. Kapiti News did not cover the matter further.

The editor then received the complaint. On November 12, he responded directly to Ms Elliott that, just because he was sent something, it should not be assumed that it would automatically get published. He said many news related emails were received every day and they could not all could be covered. The editor completely refuted her allegation thatKapiti News was appeasing KCDC to maintain an advertising contract. The editor also rejected the complainant’s subsequent query whether favourable coverage was available in exchange for ‘treating’ for Kapiti News staff.

The Decision

Press Council Principle 1 says:

“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”

The Kapiti News ran a story quoting heavily from a KCDC media release about its White Ribbon activities when there was some suggestion, as confirmed by the leak of the McCann letter, that there was a further and less positive element to the story.

Exchanges with the WRC apparently led the editor not to pursue the story, and thus not to cover the McCann letter asking KCDC to cease using the “White Ribbon Council” tag.

The resultant coverage lacked balance. Although the complainant’s general allegations about the KCDC could perhaps be considered a long-running issue where balance had been achieved over previous stories, the involvement of the WRC was a new and significant factor.

While it would have been reasonable for the Kapiti News to make an editorial decision not to cover the story, it was unreasonable to cover only one side.

The complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

Marie Shroff did not vote on this complaint.