JIM GERARD AGAINST THE KAIAPOI ADVOCATE
Case Number: 2088
Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2009
Verdict: Upheld in Part
Publication: The Kaiapoi Advocate
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Balance, Lack Of
The report appeared in The Kaiapoi Advocate (p3) on June 12.
Headlined “Tired of ‘misquotes’ on Kaiapoi pool funding” the article explained how the Kaiapoi pool had very largely been funded by the Kaiapoi community rather than by the Waimakiriri District Council.
The views of Gary Cattermole, former Chair of the Pool Committee, and Roger Blair, a Councillor representing the Kaiapoi Ward on the Waimakiriri District Council were reported.
The reporter (by-lined), Sandra Stewart, who acknowledged she was also a WDC Councillor (representing the Kaiapoi Ward) detailed her investigation concluding that “more than 90 per cent of the cost” of the pool had been sourced from Kaiapoi ratepayers and residents.
It is important to note that fundraising for a projected community pool had begun in 1987 but, as a result of local body amalgamation in 1989, the assets and liabilities of the Kaiapoi Borough Council had become subsumed by the WDC.
Until the pool’s completion (1995), various funds were granted by the WDC but Stewart’s report claimed that although the funds were technically from the district council, in reality they came from Kaiapoi.
Part of the context is that a new swimming pool is under construction in the neighbouring township, Rangiora, and many Kaiapoi residents apparently believe that the Rangiora Pool should (largely) be funded by that community rather than by district-wide rates and levies.
The complainant, Mr Gerard is a former Mayor of the WDC and the Chair of the fundraising committee for the Rangiora Pool.
Initially he addressed his concerns to the Editor but dissatisfied with his response as well as the delay in receiving a formal written reply, he complained to the Press Council.
Mr Gerard disputed that the Kaiapoi Pool had been 90 per cent Kaiapoi funded and supplied counter-information about the funds and grants.
He accepted that the dollar terms cited were accurate but pointed out that their source was open to question.
He estimated that the Kaiapoi Pool had been funded about 45 per cent by the WDC and the newspaper’s explanation that it had been almost entirely self-funded was manifestly incorrect.
He demanded that his corrections be published “unedited” and “in full”.
In his complaint to the Council, he further suggested that the report had not maintained a clear distinction between reporting facts and expressing opinion and the position of Sandra Stewart as both reporter and WDC Councillor created a conflict of interest. She had not reported fairly because she represented Kaiapoi.
He also complained about the delay in obtaining a formal reply. This meant that he had seen little point in taking up the editor’s offer of publishing a letter from the complainant (and in any case, the draft letter did not address the funding issue).
The Newspaper’s Response
On 8 July the editor replied promptly (via e-mail) to Mr Gerard’s concerns. He said he would look at his submission in detail and promised to get back “soon” with a formal response.
That was not forthcoming until a letter dated August 13. Here, he suggested that the submission was too lengthy for a “Letter to the Editor” and that parts were “close to being actionable” and he needed to be cautious about publishing such comments.
He proposed a much shorter letter, taking up Mr Gerard’s final point about the need for Councillors to work together for the whole community and offered the possibility of Mr Gerard composing a piece about the funding, which might “be considered for publication in the usual way”.
The editor stressed to the Press Council that Mr Gerard had asked that his piece be published “unedited” and “in full”. He had refused because some comments might be defamatory, its length and language use needed editing, and the facts and argument were “difficult to untangle”.
He considered that the dollar figures printed in the original story were accurate and not in need of correction.
He acknowledged his response had been “slower than I would have liked”.
Discussion and Decision
The editor’s tardiness in replying was unfortunate. Any counter argument to the original article would not have appeared until, at best, some eight weeks later.
Further, the offer to publish a brief letter missed the main point of the complaint – the sources of funding for the Kaiapoi Pool were at the very least open to debate.
It is not surprising that the complainant declined the newspaper’s belated attempt at a compromise.
Further, in the Council’s view, Mr Gerard’s comments about Councillors Stewart and Blair were forceful but hardly inflammatory in the context of lively local body politics.
The Council also finds his reasoning that there was no need to correct because “figures printed in the story are accurate” rather disingenuous. Mr Gerard stressed he was not questioning the accuracy of dollar amounts but whether those amounts stemmed from Kaiapoi or from the wider community, especially the Waimakiriri District.
It is not necessary to examine all that he disputes but one item is significant. The article had listed $500,000 as a grant from a repaid Kaiapoi Electricity loan. However, Mr Gerard pointed out that this was the repayment of a loan originally made by the WDC to KEL. In his view, the $500,000 was an asset of the WDC when that sum was donated to the Kaiapoi Pool.
On the other hand, the newspaper stands by its reporter’s claim that the money was “generated” by the Kaiapoi community.
Here, the accuracy of claim and counter-claim is difficult to establish with any certainty, especially as so much seems to depend on one’s point of view.
In later submissions to the Press Council, the newspaper forwarded some background provided by the WDC Finance and Business Support Manager. His summary is worth noting. He starts (tentatively) “where the source of funding was derived is not an easy one” then continues (carefully) “one point of view could see the funds were derived from Kaiapoi origins” but “the other alternative view is that the activity was transferred to the WDC . . . and was sourced from a district wide asset”.
This not so much a case where inaccurate information needed to be “corrected”, but rather a case where the report’s claims and conclusions needed to be balanced by an alternative point of view. This could have been provided either in the report itself, or, soon after its publication.
The Council does agree that the editor was not obliged to run the complainant’s piece, and especially not “unedited” and “in full”, as demanded. It was too long and needed editing.
Nevertheless, he had an obligation to publish some of Mr Gerard’s main points, so readers could consider the interpretations and arguments for themselves.
This was particularly important when the original story itself was one-sided.
It becomes crucial where there is a perceived conflict of interest, such as between Sandra Stewart as reporter and Sandra Stewart as Councillor for Kaiapoi.
Certainly, there is a clear by-line and her connection to the story is further highlighted within the article. However, while the article purports to be a newspaper report about the funding issue, it reads more like advocacy for Kaiapoi and for the two Kaiapoi Councillors on the WDC, Blair and Stewart.
The Press Council has commented before on the possible confusion inherent in Stewart’s twin roles and the need for this to be managed carefully rather than clumsily. (see Adjudication 2033)
The Press Council also notes Ms Stewart's argument that her article was written largely to counter an earlier story in the rival Northern Outlook which had given prominence to Mr Gerard's views regarding Kaiapoi Pool funding. However, readers of The Kaiapoi Advocate, including the complainant, would have been unaware that her report was attempting to "balance" coverage from another source. It is the Council's view that this should have been clearly signalled in her original June 12 report, especially given that the story in the Northern Outlook had been published six weeks earlier.
In conclusion, The Kaiapoi Advocate is perfectly entitled to advocate for Kaiapoi but in clearly signalled editorials and opinion pieces, not in news reports and articles.
Ethics demand that newspapers ensure that what they publish in news reports is fair and balanced. The Kaiapoi Advocate failed to do that here and it failed its readers.
The complaint is partially upheld on the ground of failing to provide fairness and balance.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.