JEFF DICKIE AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2297

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Complaint
Jeff Dickie complains about a news story on reaction to the appointment of a manager for Dunedin’s council-owned venues and he further complains that the Otago Daily Times practises selective journalism in covering professional rugby and civic debt levels. He cites the principles of accuracy, fairness, balance; comment and fact as having been breached.

Background
The controversy surrounding the building of the new stadium in Dunedin has been heated and divisive. Anti-stadium campaigner Bev Butler, in a press release, questioned the business competence of a newly appointed chief executive of Dunedin Venues Management as he had been, back in 2007, chief executive of the Carisbrook Stadium Trust and had signed a contract for raising private sector funding. In her view the fund-raising company produced little of value and, as the contract was ended prematurely, she questioned whether he was the best person to manage the publicly owned venues. She released Official Information Act –accessed documents detailing the amount of money paid to the fund-raising company at the premature termination of the contract in 2009. She had received the figures in June 2011 but said she had not released them previously as she was waiting for further details.
The Otago Daily Times covered the press release and reaction in a front page story on September 7 (which turned to page 4) in which Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull accused her of descending to personality attacks and running a smear campaign and “worse than that, using yesterday’s battles to do it.” He said she was using “old news” in a convenient way of trying to smear the new chief executive.”
Bev Butler’s responded that the mayor appeared to be “commenting on the run” and his remarks were very strange.
The new chief executive (Darren Burden) refused to be drawn into speculation about the timing of the Bev Butler’s document release but invited readers to “read into it that what you think.”
The fund-raising company’s chief executive Brian Meredith didn’t dispute the released figures but did query the timing of their release. “All I say is it’s interesting timing if she’s had those figures for a year or more.”
Carisbrook Stadium Trust chairman Malcolm Farry described the release of the information as “innuendo, imagination and misinterpretation to draw false conclusion.”

The Complaint
Mr Dickie complained to the newspaper the following day that the coverage was a personal attack on Ms Butler. Furthermore the coverage failed to mention the very important points raised by Ms Butler. Instead it had given precedence to comments about her in an editorial style one would expect in an Eastern Bloc country or totalitarian state.
Mr Dickie also chastised the Otago Daily Times for failing miserably over an extended period to offer any investigation into persistent allegations of misuse of public and charity monies in Otago and when individuals had, as a result of credible vigilance, offered their opinions they suffered from a ridiculous level of editorial abridgement. Mr Dickie said he had experience of editorial manipulation and deletion completely altering the meaning of items he had written.
Mr Dickie stated that the newspaper is in large part responsible for the massive debt of the Dunedin City Council and complicit in the “ridiculous situation that now has ratepayers funding professional rugby”. He accused the newspaper of turning a blind eye and publishing professional rugby and pro-stadium propaganda in a sustained manner and therefore doing its community a disservice.
He also provided a list of nine questions to which he demanded answers and these ranged across an historic and current list of topics including querying why the newspaper published a particular columnist and why his wife’s comment had not been published on their website.

Response
The newspaper rejected the various allegations against the integrity and reputation of the Otago Daily Times and its staff and stated that the coverage of the Butler press release had been handled professionally and accurately. All parties were given an opportunity to respond including Ms Butler – responding to responses. The newspaper rejected the claim that the very important points raised by the Butler release were not covered by the story. “The majority of the front-page coverage is given over to reporting the information she uncovered.”
The newspaper’s detailed response included references to many articles published over time answering the allegation by the complainant that these issues had not been covered. The complainant was also invited to submit a letter to the editor on issues which he wanted to get into the public domain.

Discussion
While the complaint is centered on a specific news story the real problem Mr Dickie has with the Otago Daily Times appears to come from his view that the newspaper has a culture of poor reporting on issues surrounding Dunedin’s debt level and the decision to build a stadium and its impact on the civic debt. The complainant’s final submission specifically refers to the Dunedin debt level, how it is reported upon, and his view that the newspaper has an agenda when it comes to supporting professional rugby – something he sees as a scandalous misappropriation of ratepayers’ funds.

The complainant argues the news story of September 7 is deficient under a number of principles. However, it covers every aspect of the topic giving every player an opportunity to comment and it even gives the main protagonist an opportunity to respond to comment on her reaction to the appointment of the new Dunedin venues manager. Could it be any more thorough? Probably not.
Could it have had a different angle? Yes, it could have focused on the content of the press release rather than the timing of it. Would that have advanced the knowledge of the readers? Perhaps there is an argument that it might have if this was the first knowledge they had of the amount of money paid to the former fund-raising company.
However, the press release itself focused on the relationship between the appointment of the new chief executive and his role in signing the fund-raising contract and the newspaper followed this line. In doing so, they drew responses about the historic nature of the information and the length of time it had been in Ms Butler’s possession.
Ms Butler was trying to set the news agenda however the responses to her release did not veer in the direction she anticipated. This is not due to manipulation by the newspaper.
On the broader range of allegations against the newspaper, little evidence is presented to support this. The newspaper’s selection of stories about the stadium and professional rugby issues is dismissed by the complainant as “selective indeed” without further explanation of its deficiency. Complaints must have more substance in order to be considered.

Decision
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.