JOANNA & RO PIEKARSKI AND VICTORIA DAVIS AGAINST GOLDEN BAY WEEKLY

Case Number: 2301

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Golden Bay Weekly

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage
Conflict of Interest


Joanna and Ro Piekarski and Victoria Davis complained about the Golden Bay Weekly’s coverage of the proposed development of an Integrated Health Centre in Takaka.



The Complaint
The complaint stems from the complainants’ dissatisfaction with the Golden Bay Weekly’s coverage of the development of the Integrated Health Centre for the region to be based in Takaka. The complaint ranges from the general: the publishers (and editors) ‘have always taken it upon themselves to pick a side on issues and only print one-sided stories’, to the much more specific, the failure to print particular letters or contributions. The principles adduced were Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Comment and Fact; Conflicts of Interest. Following the editor’s reply the complainants appeared to drop the latter two principles, or at least to concentrate on Accuracy, Fairness and Balance as the main grounds for their complaint.



The Golden Bay Weekly Response
The editors replied that ‘it is ludicrous to suggest that they have always taken it upon themselves to pick a side on issues and only print one-sided stories.’ and supplied photocopied pages of the GBW with any reference to the health project.
On the particular issue of not printing letters critical of the health project and of what was claimed to be ‘an increasing news blackout . . . regarding the proposal, particularly since a “cost blowout” was revealed’ they wrote that the letters which they did not publish arrived at a time when the tenders for the project had been opened and when critical negotiations were taking place to try and ensure adequate funding could be secured. In their judgment critical letters at that time could be counter-productive to the success of the negotiations. The editors added that the GBW had taken no position on the integrated health facility until March of this year when, convinced of the merit of the scheme, they decided they should show their own support for it and attempt to rally support for it in the community. (This development in the editors’ point of view was outlined clearly in letters to Ro Piekarski and to another writer which are quoted at length in the initial complaint.)
There was further correspondence and comment from both sides which did not significantly alter the points at issue.



Discussion
Golden Bay is a small and relatively isolated community and although other sources of information are available to its residents it is clear that their weekly paper assumes an importance greater than a similar publication in a larger centre. It is also a community where many people have chosen to live for lifestyle reasons and where developments, such as mining or marine farming, which might impact on that lifestyle provoke strong controversy. While a little different, the integrated health project, not least in its financial arrangements, could impact very broadly on those residents. It is understandable that there were, and are, strong and differing views on the wisdom of the development and that the community newspaper should be seen as the appropriate place for these views to be expressed.
At the same time the Press Council has always been clear that an editor has the responsibility for deciding which letters should be printed and how they should be handled. Equally clear, and at times to be applauded, is the editor’s right to be an advocate. The GBW has been open and forthright about its support for the health centre since early this year, and there can be no complaint about that. Until that time, judging by the material sent to the Council, the paper published letters and other material reflecting a variety of views on the centre. It also sought and published responses by the Interim Management Group to questions raised by correspondents.
The editors’ decision not to publish critical letters during the contract negotiations, while arguable, could be supported, and a complaint focused on that would probably not be upheld. What is less clear is the editors’ apparent decision not to publish any further critical letters once the project is started on the grounds that ‘revisiting old arguments now is counter-productive’, or ‘to re-litigate the old questions threatens to subvert the project’.
While one would hope that the correspondents themselves would recognise some validity in these comments it is also clear that the development and running of the centre may well raise issues on which public comment, possibly critical, could be useful and constructive. The Council would hope that the editors’ general support for the project would not preclude the publication of such material.



Finding
The complaint is not upheld.



Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.