Case Number: 938

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Kaiapoi Leader

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Waimakariri mayor Jim Gerard complains that in an article of 12 December 2002 headlined “Rocky road trips promise-packed council”, Kaiapoi Leader editor Sandra Stewart has breached standards of accuracy, fairness and balance.

The complaint is not upheld.

The article, written by Ms Stewart, includes the statement: “Jim Gerard ... [is] chary about admitting to a split in ranks, particularly no doubt as one of his election platforms was to heal the rifts which beleaguered the previous council. Not to mention his own propensity to swing on the vote. He came under fire from deputy Jo Kane last month for putting his casting vote to setting up the new community and recreation committee with chair Robbie Brine when talks had always been for a cost neutral proposal chaired by Jo Kane.”

In a letter to the editor, Mr Gerard says he particularly objected to her assertion that he had a propensity to “swing on the vote” with an inference that he had blocked the deputy mayor from being appointed to chair the new community and recreation committee by the use of his casting vote.

Mr Gerard also takes issue with an earlier (October 31) article that stated “that the mayor had no faith in his deputy’s ability to do the job, by using his casting vote against her appointment”. He says that although the editor had been present at a subsequent council meeting where he had rebutted this charge, the rebuttal had gone unreported.

The following order of events, he says, demonstrates clearly “that Ms Stewart’s allegation that I have a ‘propensity to swing on the vote’ is without foundation”. At a council meeting of September 3 the council had voted without dissent in favour of the new committee; an agreed requirement to review the membership of all existing committees had delayed its appointment until October 21; and he had then used his casting vote to “maintain the status quo” of the earlier meeting.

Rather than showing any propensity to swing, casting his vote in this way had been consistent with accepted parliamentary and personal practice. An analysis of the outcome of all resolutions moved at council meetings between October 2001 and December 2002 showed that he had used his casting vote on only three occasions – each time to confirm the status quo.

These not only showed Ms Stewart’s December conclusions that he had a “propensity to swing” to be “grossly incorrect and misleading”, he says, but threw into question the accuracy of the October 31 article that quoted Cr Kane as saying the committee vote indicated the mayor lacked confidence in her ability.

Mr Gerard took his case to the Press Council after Ms Stewart declined to run a retraction for her December article or a correction for her alleged “misleading accusations” in the October article.

Responding, Ms Stewart argues that it is the later vote that is relevant to discussion – the earlier vote had been in the nature of a “proposal”. Mr Gerard’s casting vote had defeated Cr Kane’s procedural motion that the agenda lie on the table until a Higher Salaries Commission determination on local government salary pools. The effect of this vote, she says, was to confirm the present committee structure and the appointment of Cr Brine – something seen by some councillors as a vote of no confidence in the deputy mayor.

The editor cites the opinions of two councillors (Kane and Shivas), previously expressed in the newspaper (October 31), to support this. She says she does not accept that a retraction is necessary for either the October or December pieces because they were neither factually incorrect nor grossly misleading as contended.

Both Mr Gerard and Ms Stewart engaged in lengthy debate in support of their respective understandings of the vote proceedings and meanings. Despite evidence supplied to this council that Mr Gerard has been consistent in his voting practices – he only votes where a show of hands or a division is called - it is clear from the detail of this debate that the differences over the effect of this practice also spill over into the council chamber.

The whole issue bears all the hallmarks of a vigorous political debate, one that is reasonably played out in a public arena. Ms Stewart might be advised to be more careful in her choice of words: suggesting that Gerard had a “propensity to swing” was an overly strong and ambiguous way of making her point. This and other observations can be seen as editorialising – a practice more valid in a newspaper editorial or in a column clearly marked “opinion”.

Nevertheless, in the context of a healthy, political arena and public commentary, her by-lined interpretations are as valid as those of the councillors she reports on the issue. Politicians must expect to be thoroughly scrutinised and criticised.

Mr Gerard is mistaken in his expectation that the newspaper has an obligation to report his criticisms of it put at a public meeting – and that it fails standards of accuracy, fairness or balance by criticising him or choosing to highlight the views of his opponents.

He has every right, however, to seek to continue the debate with opponents within council where his real argument seems to belong. As that debate continues it is likely to receive plenty of coverage in a community newspaper that is clearly passionate about local affairs.

It is suggested by the evidence supplied by Ms Stewart that the mayor may not always have been adept at dealing with the news media, on one occasion not responding to requests for comment. If he had been more available, his side of events may have had a better airing.

The complaint is not upheld.