Case Number: 1007

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Jim Pringle of Tauranga complained to the Press Council on 7 October about aspects of coverage of local body elections by the Bay of Plenty Times of 18 September . Although not himself a member of the Tauranga City Council he objected – apparently on behalf of some councillors - to an article in which the Mayor and sitting members had been rated by the newspaper on their performances in the Council chamber.

The Press Council has not upheld his complaints.

Mr Pringle acknowledged that “Leading-up to the elections this paper was doing an excellent job of informing and encouraging the public re the candidates and addressing the responsibility of voting etc”. Nevertheless, the article of 18 September 2004 had been an “obvious attempt to influence voters”. He commented, “When a reporter becomes judge and jury with the support of the editor, they are abusing the freedom of the press.”

Moreover, failure to publish letters to the editor written by incumbent councillors had, been “totally inconsistent” with the newspaper’s campaign to inform the voting public. As an elected member of ‘Environment Bay of Plenty’ he had written a letter on the subject of mangrove management which had not been published. The editor had explained, “In an election environment we are rejecting more letters than usual in order to ensure fairness in the upcoming vote.”

As noted by Mr Pringle, the Bay of Plenty Times went to considerable lengths to promote interest in the 2004 local body elections, conducting what it described as ‘Operation Democracy’. The newspaper sponsored a forum for the five candidates for Mayor of the Tauranga City Council to present their views. In an editorial headed, “Exercise your vote this month or button up for the next 3 years”, on 18 September (the day most voters would have received their ballot papers) the Editor noted that the paper, had also "taken a look at the Bay of Plenty Health Board, Western Bay of Plenty District Council, Environment Bay of Plenty and finally the Tauranga City Council”.

Mr Pringle’s complaint was directed at the latter report - a half page spread under the headline "How Tauranga’s councillors rate”, also published that day. Along with a brief analysis of their performance in the Council chamber, Mayor and councillors were rated on an ascending scale of one to ten. In the introduction, or standfirst, it was made clear that the piece was the work of the paper’s civic affairs reporter, who had covered local body politics in Hawkes Bay for nine years and in the Bay of Plenty for 10 years. It was stated that he had been asked to give a “warts-and-all assessment of the Mayor and latest crop of councillors”. The editor, in his associated editorial said that he had asked the reporter to do the piece in the interest of helping voters “make an informed vote”.

On 21 September, in an editorial under the headline, “We defend your right to know”, the editor acknowledged that some councillors “had cried foul” but insisted, “ our council report was not done for the council or councillors, it was done for you, to help you make an informed vote. It was done to encourage democracy.” On 24 September – two weeks before the poll was to close – the paper published almost three quarters of a page of letters for and against the coverage of 18 September – under the headline “Democracy or plain unfair?”

In response to the editor’s contention that his aim had been to inform the voters, Mr Pringle argued that “he did not consider judgement or assessment by individuals employed by the paper to be real information” . Another local – and rival - paper, The Weekend Sun also questioned whether such assessments could fairly be made by a single individual in the employment of the newspaper – “to publish one man’s point of view together with his ranking out of 10 – based solely on his observations at a few meetings over a three year period on the Saturday after voting papers were sent out – was beyond the pale.”

Opinion is the lifeblood of a free press. Newspapers are not, and never should be, passive. They are put together by observers, often very experienced observers, of human affairs. Their points of view are valid and important to the cause of public discussion. The ‘ratings’ article in question was no doubt provocative. The report card technique is, however, increasingly used in the media. There is cause for some care in that a mathematical measure can convey a doubtful notion of accuracy. Nevertheless voter apathy sometimes calls for the blunt approach. In making it clear that the article was the work of one experienced reporter, the editor emphasized that there had been no interference in the assessments by himself or other members of the editorial staff. This is all as it should be with an opinion piece of this kind.

Election outcomes are determined by many things: public meetings, advertisements and the prior reputation of the candidates, all contribute. A newspaper like the Bay of Plenty Times will also have been regularly reporting Council business over the years and thus giving voters a continuing impression of the performance of their representatives. A single article during an election campaign is only part of the process. The Bay of Plenty Times clearly did well in attempting to foster interest in the local elections and acted in the broad interest of its readers and consistently with the role of a free press in a free society. The Press Council finds nothing contrary to the public interest in the newspaper’s coverage. This aspect of Mr Pringle’s complaint is, accordingly, not upheld.

The Press Council equally does not find any inconsistency between failure to publish a letter on a political topic during an election campaign and the broader objectives of the newspaper in promoting voter engagement in the elections. This part of the complaint too, is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, Aroha Puata, Suzanne Carty, Lynn Scott, Alan Samson, Keith Lees, Murray Williams, Denis McLean and Terry Snow.