JEFF PAGE AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 1049

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2006

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Accuracy

Jeff Page complained to the Press Council against the Herald on Sunday, alleging that some articles about him were an invasion of his privacy, and, in general, unfair and unbalanced. He listed various complaints which he contended were examples of inaccurate and biased reporting. His complaint is partly upheld.


Background
The complaint concerns three articles by the same journalist. The first was written for the Sunday Star-Times (September 26, 2004.) and the following two were written for the Herald on Sunday (March 20, 2005 and June 12, 2005).
It should be noted that the first two articles lie outside the three-month time frame for complaints to the Press Council, but they have been accepted here as background to the specific complaint about the June 12, 2005 report.
In summary, three articles cover various aspects of the same story – about a “millionaire landlord” receiving $640 per week in disability compensation from ACC. The first article referred to Mr Page’s investment income and his tennis ability and noted that he was receiving $640 per week from ACC. It quotes an ACC spokesman who noted that Mr Page was entitled to these payments under previous legislation.
The second article outlines Mr Page’s court action against ACC for further compensation in the form of a lump sum payment. The basis of the claim was that ACC had broken a mediated agreement over back payments to 1974.
The third article, the subject of this complaint, refers to Mr Page receiving $640 per week from ACC and also receiving subsidised doctors visits “almost every day for two years because he was stressed about his marriage breakup”. Further comments from the article are referred to below.

The Basis of the Complaint
The complainant contended that the reporter was exercising a “personal vendetta” against him, through the media. In his view, the reporter had “lied”, “fabricated evidence” in trying to construct a “sensational story”, invaded his privacy in revealing details from the court actions and, overall, shown bias against the complainant.
Taken as a whole, the core of his complaint is that the Press Council’s principle that “publications . . .should at all times be guided by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform . . .” had been transgressed. Specific complaints were detailed as examples of “entirely false” and misleading information.
He noted that the June 12 report repeated the claim that Mr Page was a “senior A-grade tennis player” when he was listed in the Auckland Tennis Association rankings at only S7, or about C grade.
He contended that the June 12 headline (which picked up a key phrase from the story)
“Millionaire saw GP ‘almost every day’” was inaccurate because the visits were “just under every third day or twice per week”.
He suggested that the reporter and the newspaper should not have published details from his medical notes.
In his complaint to the newspaper (and in a foot-note to his formal complaint to the Press Council) he pointed out that the name of his former wife was incorrect.


The Newspaper’s Reply
The editor rejected the both the general and specific allegations made by Mr Page.
He said that in his view the story was of “legitimate public interest”, especially as it concerned large amounts of taxpayers’ money, adding that the two stories published by the Herald on Sunday (March 20 and June 12) involved fresh angles on a story that had already been covered elsewhere.
He added that, in terms of balance and fairness, Mr Page had been given an opportunity to express his view and had been quoted in the reports and two letters to the Editor had been published in support of Mr Page and his views (March 27).
In response to the specific complaints, the editor made the following points.
First, the reporter had contacted a staff member of Auckland Tennis who had described Mr Page as “a senior player whose abilities were A-grade compared to other club players of his age” and, further, the current rankings show that Mr Page is a better player than he had indicated to the Press Council.
Secondly, in respect of the complaint that the headline “Millionaire saw GP ‘almost every day’” the editor pointed out that Mr Page had not disputed that he had visited his doctor “like every day or couple of days for years” when this had been put to him during court cross examination. According to the editor, this was also addressed by the reporter when he rang Mr Page to discuss the court transcript and again Mr Page had not disagreed with the timing of his doctors visits.
In respect of the comment that the newspaper should not have published details from the complainant’s medical records, the editor pointed out that the information came, indirectly, through the court transcripts of a depositions hearing, and was accordingly a matter of public record.
Finally, the editor agreed that the paper had got the name of Mr Page’s former wife wrong – and it was regretted and would be corrected.


Conclusion
The newspaper published two articles covering developments in an ongoing story concerned with ACC payments. ACC regulations and the way the ACC scheme has
evolved should naturally be open to discussion and debate.
In the earlier articles balance had been given by quoting an ACC spokesman who had made it clear that Mr Page was entitled to the payment under legislation which was in force when the payments were approved. Additional comments by the National Party spokeswoman on ACC and the ACC Minister, combined with the subsequent (March 27) letters to the editor, provided a valid example of how such informed discussion can be stimulated and developed. In short, this was a perfectly reasonable example of newspaper going about its proper business – informing the public.

The June 12 article, accepted for complaint by the Press Council, is an example of a newspaper developing the story further. Here, details of the case the complainant was taking against his former wife were not dwelt on but the court transcripts were used to raise a further issue – of an apparently wealthy person benefiting from taxpayer-subsidised doctors’ visits.
For all of the reports, the complainant was contacted for comment and his point of view was quoted, at some length.
Accordingly, the Council does not accept the complainant’s concerns regarding unfairness and lack of balance and his overall and general complaint is not upheld.

As to the specific complaint about the phrase, and subsequent headline, “Millionaire saw GP ‘almost every day’”, this is a slight exaggeration. However, Mr Page apparently did not repudiate the timing details when that was put to him in court, nor does he seem to have taken up that particular point when the reporter called him to check details. Further, the informal and colloquial expression “almost every day” is open to a variety of interpretations. The Council is not prepared to uphold on such a minor, questionable detail.
However, the newspaper is not entirely free from criticism.
The editor’s initial response to the complainant’s concerns about the inaccuracy of being termed a “senior A-grade” tennis player seems less than convincing. The reporter himself referred to the Auckland Tennis rankings. There is a scale from S(singles)1 at the top, to S10 at the bottom. In early 2005, Mr Page is on the ranked list at S7. By late 2005 he had improved, but only to S6.
Mr Page may well be a lively, capable player but he is clearly a long way from being a “Senior A-grade” player and the Council accepts his claim and the evidence that he is a recreational club player at, in his own words, low B or high C grade.
Again, this is not the most grievous breach of journalistic ethics that the Press Council has had to deal with, but the report did carry the implication that Mr Page was unfairly accepting ACC compensation while playing top level tennis. The report did not make it clear that Mr Page’s ACC payments were in no way conditional on his physical fitness or his income.
Accordingly, this part of the complaint is upheld.


Finding
The general complaints about unfair, unbalanced and biased reporting are not upheld, but this one specific complaint of inaccurate reporting is upheld. While minor, the newspaper was endeavoring to create a picture of Mr Page with inaccurate material.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees and Clive Lind. John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complant.