JOHN NELSON AGAINST THE WELLINGTONIAN
Case Number: 2335
Council Meeting: JUNE 2013
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: The Wellingtonian
Balance, Lack Of
Censorship, Supression of Fact
Obligation to Publish
John Nelson complained that The Wellingtonian failed to produce a story exposing what he considered to be the Wellington City Council's poor record of prosecuting the owners of dangerous dogs. The editor said that upon investigation The Wellingtonian did not believe his criticism of the council was fair. The complaint was not upheld.
Mr Nelson's daughter had seen two dogs attacking her cat outside her home. When she retrieved the cat it was dying. The dogs had been on the loose and were captured by council officers. The owner was issued with infringement notices for failing to keep the dogs under control and he paid $400 in fines.
Mr Nelson did not believe the charge or the punishment adequate and he attempted to bring a private prosecution in the District Court under a different section of the Dog Control Act 1996 that carries a fine of up to $3000. A stay of proceedings was issued in the District Court and upheld on his appeal to the High Court, though the High Court judge observed in passing that the council perhaps should "review how it exercises its prosecutorial discretion".
Mr Nelson then went to the newspaper. A reporter took an interest in his story and sought further information from the council. She learned there had been about 90 reported attacks in Wellington in 2011-12 and 88 dogs had been euthanised over that period. Mr Nelson discounted the euthanasia figure because dogs left with the council could be put down for reasons other than being dangerous. He offered to seek more information from the council himself and says the reporter expressed an interest in seeing any material he could get. But when he contacted her some time later he discovered The Wellingtonian wanted to do a story on the death of his daughter's cat. It wanted to photograph her holding a box of the cat's ashes, which Mr Nelson and his wife would not allow for fear that it would re-traumatise their daughter. The Wellingtonian then had no further interest in the story.
Mr Nelson said he went to considerable trouble gathering information for the newspaper, copying and delivering material to the reporter. He said he had been given a "virtual guarantee" The Wellingtonian would run the story and the reporter had agreed it would not be about his family's loss. He says that when he learned of the paper's change of heart he phoned the editor to ask the reason and was accused of wasting the staff's time. Mr Nelson says it was his own time and efforts that were wasted.
The Editor's Reply
The editor gave the Press Council five reasons for his decision not to publish a story: the lapse of time since the attack on the cat, the failure of Mr Nelson's private prosecution, his refusal to allow the paper to talk to his daughter, inquiries that suggested the council's handling of the matter was entirely orthodox and consistent, and the euthanasia rate that suggested to the editor criticism of the council would be unfair.
The editor believed the Press Council ought not to have accepted this complaint since nothing had been published. He cited a similar case (#979, Anna Wilding against The Press) involving a decision not to publish, in which the council had agreed there were no grounds for upholding the complaint. He endorsed the view of the editor in that case, that editors had the sole discretion on what to publish and he was not obliged to run this story merely because Mr Nelson wanted him to do so.
The Press Council is reluctant to accept complaints over non-publication. It will do so in cases where facts that appear vital to a published story have not been published, or where there has been a failure to cover subsequent developments that cast doubt on the original story. Neither of those conditions exists in this case.
The Council acknowledges the efforts Mr Nelson has taken but no matter how much investigative effort a newspaper makes, or others make, or what sort of encouragement the newspaper has given them, in the end it is the editor's right to decide what is published. If the Press Council was to adjudicate on issues not published it would take on a forbidding task.
The Council was divided over whether to issue this decision. Some members were strongly of the view that the Council should not have considered this case and should not issue a decision on it. The decision was issued in the hope that it might illustrate why complaints about non-publication generally can not be accepted.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.