JO MILLIS AGAINST WANAKA SUN

Case Number: 2121

Council Meeting: JUNE 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wanaka Sun

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Editorial Discretion
Unfair Coverage

Jo Millis complained about the “TXT Message Board” section of the Wanaka Sun. She raised various concerns about the anonymity of the text contributors, personal attacks and a lack of fairness and balance. Her complaint is not upheld.



Background
The TXT Message Board is a recent development in the Wanaka Sun, appearing alongside a traditional Letters to the Editor section.
The “messages” are generally from anonymous senders, and retain the chatty, informal, much-abbreviated format frequently used in texting.
Contributors are encouraged to “voice their opinions” on local issues and there is also an opportunity for community groups to list not-for-profit events.



The Complaint
Dr Millis claimed that the published texts were often derogatory and showed a lack of balance. As examples, she pointed to comments posted about the chairman of the board and the principal of a local primary school, following an earlier Wanaka Sun article about school donations.
She questioned whether such comments should be published anonymously.
In a final letter to the Press Council, she stressed that her complaint was not about anonymous texts which simply gave an opinion, it was about the anonymity of texts referring to members of the community in a negative and personal manner. She suggested this could be a form of “public text bullying”.



The Response
The editor, Malcolm Frith, explained that the TXT Board had been created to connect with a section of the paper’s readership that would never write a letter to the editor. It had proved very popular.
Conditions surrounding this forum had been published and included caveats against swearing and offensive comments. The newspaper also reserved the usual right to abridge and edit.
He acknowledged that anonymity was “a major problem”, but feared that if people had to supply names and addresses, few would give their opinions openly.
Mr Frith stressed that he took personal responsibility for the monitoring the board and in his view the printed texts had not been “libellous, defamatory or offensive”. Several texts had been rejected because they were inappropriate.
The phone numbers were logged and he firmly rejected any inference that the texts were occasionally created by any of the newspaper’s staff.



Discussion and Decision
The examples supplied by the complainant, while critical of some members of the local community, did not seem either vitriolic or vicious. In the view of the Council they were disparaging rather than gratuitously offensive.
Further, as far as lack of fairness or balance is concerned, the newspaper also published several texts (and letters) that were in support of the school’s position on donations and by extension, the board chairman and principal.
For these reasons this complaint is not upheld.
Nevertheless, the complainant’s general concerns about publishing texts from anonymous sources are also of concern to the Press Council.
First, there is an obvious contradiction in the Wanaka Sun’s stance on letters and its stance on texts. The rules for letters clearly state that “letters sent in anonymously will not be published” yet texts suffer no such restriction.
Further, the very nature of texting seems to encourage an instant, forceful, almost throwaway response rather than the more considered approach of composing a letter to the editor. This may be well be exacerbated when you do not have to back your comment with your own identity.
There is also a difference between attacking, say, a politician, who might be expected to be subject to robust comment, and criticising someone working in a voluntary capacity within the local community.
Press Council Principles stress that editors have considerable freedom in the selection and treatment of letters for publication: nevertheless, the Council has also noted that “the letters to the editor section is not to be a forum for personal attacks”. (See Adjudication 2087)
To some extent, such message boards might be considered analogous to the websites now operated by many newspapers and the Press Council has previously stressed the need for constant and vigilant monitoring of such sites to prevent personal attacks. (Again, Adjudication 2087)
Finally, the complainant’s point that publishing texted messages, could quickly degenerate into the personal, and become akin to “text bullying” especially within a small, localised community or township, should give editors pause to consider the dangers inherent in creating such text platforms.
This complaint is not upheld but it raises valid concerns about how the print media industry might utilise, and control, recent developments in communication technology.



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.