JACKIE ELLIOTT AGAINST KAPITI OBSERVER, THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2468

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Kapiti Observer

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Headlines and Captions
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Jackie Elliott, a member of the Kapiti District Council, complained about a report in theKapiti Observer, also carried in The Dominion Post and on the Stuff website, headlined, “Bid to dump leader of public arts panel”. Ms Elliott was chairwoman of the council’s public art panel and the mayor proposed to replace her because the $54,000 the council had budgeted to buy art was unspent. The complaint is not upheld

The Complaint

Ms Elliott considered the newspaper’s account unbalanced, harmful to her reputation and an attempt to discredit her. The mayor had made false statements, she said, and it was the newspaper’s duty to check the facts. This was the latest in a serious of articles concerning her that she considered lazy reporting. The reporter appeared to have no knowledge of how the public art panel worked and ignored the fact that senior staff had confirmed the budget for purchasing could be carried over to the next financial year.

Headlines such as, “Kapiti Mayor Seeks To Dump Councillor Over Growing Mountain of Cash” [the Stuff headline] were deeply offensive to her and had caused much distress to her extended family. When the reporter had contacted her about the mayor’s proposal in the council agenda she had given him the email response she had sent to all elected members refuting the mayor’s allegations. She had also urged the reporter to read the council’s public art policy on its website.

The published story was factually inaccurate, she believed, because the council’s art budget was required to be held over to enable purchases every two years. Her panel had met twice and would meet again when a senior manager returned from three months sickness leave. The panel had updated the council more than it was required to. While the story had devoted four paragraphs to her explanation, it also carried solicited comments from panel members without stating the questions put to them.

She had suggested another story to the reporter, about her concern that the council’s proposed Code of Conduct for members was in breach of principles of natural justice. But the reporter had angled that story on a 14-month-old Code of Conduct complaint against her. This was the third time he had written about that complaint and this time quoted the mayor making a factually inaccurate statement, which the reporter would have known if he had read the Code of Conduct policy.

The Kapiti Observer had failed to print more than 20 press releases she had issued and did not print her letters without seeking a rebuttal from the council. Yet it published letters critical of the complainant and did not print her replies.

The Response


The Editor in Chief for Fairfax Media, Central Region, Bernadette Courtney, said she had been assured theKapiti Observer’s reporter had read the council’s public art policy though he was under no obligation to tell the complainant so. Ms Courtney, from her reading of the policy, noted that it required prior approval for the panel to carry over its budget for purchases to the following year, and this did not appear to have happened.

Other details mentioned in the complaint were covered in the story. The panel had not reported back to the council for months, as reported. The headlines were not misleading and the complainant had quoted them inaccurately. The website heading was, “Kapiti mayor seeks to dump councillor over growing cash mountain for art”. The Dominion Post’s: “Bid to dump leader of public art panel”.

Regarding the Code of Conduct story, the Editor in Chief said its angle was not the complaint against Ms Elliott, it was that code of conduct complaints were mounting up against elected members, the council was refusing to release information about them, and was working out a process for dealing with them.

As for printing the complainant’s press releases, the Kapiti Observer rarely, if ever, ran councillors’ press releases. Those worthy of a story were followed up by a reporter. The complainant’s views had been well aired in the newspaper. In the past year it had received three letters from her and run two of them. No response was sought from the council to either. A response from the complainant to a letter about her appeared in August last year. The only other letter from her, received in March, was a response to a letter in which she was not named. Her letter accused another councillor of bullying and suggested the police lay a charge of verbal assault. The editor had decided not to run it.

The newspaper had published letters in support of the complainant over the years and had shown no bias against her.

The Decision

The story and the headings are accurate. As an account of the mayor’s concerns about the leadership of the public art panel, the story was balanced and fair. It gave four paragraphs to the explanation from the complainant. In response to the Editor in Chief, Ms Elliott elaborated on a number of facets of the art panel’s work, or lack of it, that she believed should have been in the story. None of those details were serious omissions in the Press Council’s view.

It was not the reporter’s job to interpret the council’s art purchasing policy or to declare whether she or the mayor was correct.

The additional story about the complaints accumulating under the Code of Conduct was not “angled” on the 14-month old complaint against her. It reported that four complaints were awaiting attention while the council discussed how to deal with them. It mentioned the complaint against Councillor Elliott as an example and did not dwell on it unduly.

The newspaper was under no obligation to print press releases. The complainant’s allegations about the treatment of her letters were categorically refuted by the Editor in Chief who stated how many letters have been received and how they were handled. The complainant did not dispute the Editor in Chief’s response on these points. Her argument was with the mayor of Kapiti District, not the newspaper that reported his concerns. The complaint was not upheld.

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