JOHN SHRAPNELL AGANST CAPITAL TIMES
Case Number: 2235
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2012
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Capital Times
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
John Shrapnell complained about a report which was published in the Capital Times on November 16, 2012. He argued that the report lacked accuracy, fairness and balance. His complaint is not upheld.
Capital Times is a weekly community newspaper, delivered to Wellington’s inner-city suburbs, available at many pick-up points around the city and published online.
The report, under the heading Whose shed is it anyway, explained that a rift had developed in the management of a Wellington-based trust, the Menzshed Wellington Charitable Trust (MSW). The Trust administered Menzshed, a place where men could go to have a chat, a cup of tea, and use their trade skills for charitable purposes, such as maintenance work for other community-based groups.
The Trust had been established by a small group, including John Gibbons, the President and Executive Officer of Age Concern Wellington. Now, according to the report, he was being “forcefully challenged” by John Shrapnell.
The rift had developed to the stage where a new trust had been formed, the Wellington City Menzshed Charitable Trust (WCM), with similar aims but providing in a more formal manner for “membership”. This new group wished to continue using the same premises operated by MSW.
The article suggested that John Shrapnell had taken a leading role in the establishment of the new and rival grouping.
The article was accompanied by a photograph of John Gibbons, on the premises of Menzshed, and Mr Gibbons was also quoted in the report. Mr Shrapnell was not quoted.
It is worth noting that a subsequent report (and subsequent to Mr Shrapnell contacting the newspaper with his concerns) was published by the Capital Times on November 23, 2012.
Mr Shrapnell has not formally complained about that report, headed “Grumpy Old Men”, but in follow-up letters to the Press Council he explained that it only “rubbed salt into his wound”.
The nub of Mr Shrapnell’s complaint is that the article was couched as a personal attack.
He argued that Menzshed Wellington (MSW) was not being challenged by John Shrapnell, as the article alleged, but rather by the Wellington City Menzshed Charitable Trust (WCM).
The article had implied that he was a relatively recent attendee at Menzshed’s “Grumpy Men’s Sessions”, but he had been involved from their very start.
He denied that he had posted “vituperative” comments about Gibbons on his Menzshed website.
He stressed that although the report had stated “Shrapnell wants to take the place over” he was, in fact, the Secretary for the WCM, ie only one of a group concerned about “membership” and the subsequent selection/election of trustees.
He denied that he had actively encouraged MSW members to join WCM.
He disputed the reported comments that a grant made by the Medibank Commmunity Fund to WCM may have been made on the mistaken belief that the funds were being made to MSW and that the Wellington City Council’s Community Grants Committee was refusing further funding until the “ownership” of Menzshed became clear.
Finally, he complained that he had not been asked for comment on the matters raised in the article, rather, the reporter was only on the phone for “half a minute before he rang off . . . he did not call back”.
The Newspaper’s Response
Managing editor, Alison Franks, argued that John Shrapnell could fairly be described as a “forceful challenger” because he was, for example, a spokesman for the new WCM group, a founding trustee and founding secretary, WCM’s contact person for both the Wellington City Council and the Sisters of Compassion (who own the premises used by Menzshed), and listed as webmaster for the WCM website. Further, WCM group meetings had been held at his home and he had made efforts to get the lease of the premises for WCM.
The editor pointed out that there had been sharply critical comments about Mr Gibbons posted on the WCM website, such as calling him a “Grinch” and a piece of doggerel aimed at Mr Gibbons which included “ Damn all those sheddies who won’t let me be boss/I’ll keep the door locked and I won’t give a toss”.
The editor rejected the complainant’s view that he had not “encouraged” some of the men to join the new group. Mr Shrapnell had been very involved in setting up the structure for a new group, had discussed the new group at the existing sessions of Menzshed and invited some to join. He was not merely the Secretary for WCM – he was its spokesman and had initiated the efforts to meet the owners of the property in order to gain access for members of WCM.
A spokesperson for Medibank had affirmed that they did not ask about two Menzsheds when they made a grant to Menzshed and the WCC Senior Media Advisor had stated that Menzshed would not be further funded while the situation was unclear.
Above all, she argued that there were no material inaccuracies, only “tendentious points regarding interpretation of word use” from the viewpoint of the complainant. For example, she cited Mr Shrapnell’s definition of “membership” in a formal sense rather than loose grouping (for MSW, whoever chose to walk through the door was at once a “member” but for WCM, “membership” was a result of paying a due, albeit token, and “membership” gave the right to elect trustees).
She admitted that the newspaper had erred in not responding more formally to Mr Shrapnell’s written complaint but explained that she had telephoned him promptly asking him about his concerns. Mr Shrapnell had declined to discuss the issues he had raised, point by point, instead claiming that he did not trust her to report accurately.
Finally, the editor noted that the newspaper had published all letters received on this subject – in an attempt to ensure fairness and balance.
Discussion and Conclusion
First, this was a story worth covering and worth investigating. Here was an organization that had received some favourable publicity and public funding but was suddenly beset by factionalism and bitterness.
Secondly, most suggested inaccuracies were successfully countered by the newspaper. Some minor details at issue are no doubt caused by different interpretations about the meanings of words and by the difference in point of view between the complainant and the newspaper. In any case, the Press Council is of the view that they are immaterial and the complaint about inaccuracy is not upheld.
The complaint about a lack of fairness and a lack of balance is stronger. In reports where one person is so clearly the subject of criticism, one normally expects the issues to be put directly to that person, for balancing comment.
Mr Gibbons is quoted, at some length, in the article, but Mr Shrapnell is not.
The complainant’s question, “How can you have fairness and balance if you only interview one party in a story?” is a pertinent one.
Further, no other members of WCM were contacted for comment.
However, it is clear that the reporter did approach Mr Shrapnell at least initially.
What happened next is unclear and is a matter of dispute between the complainant and the newspaper. Mr Shrapnell maintains that he was not directly asked for comment on the matters raised in the article and the reporter abruptly finished the conversation after “about half a minute”. The newspaper maintains that when phoned for comment, Mr Shrapnell simply referred the reporter to the WCM website for any information and the reporter did use that source.
However, what is clear is that he was later approached by the editor after he had raised his concerns about the initial report. He explains that he had little trust in being reported accurately but it is significant that he declined to give further information – he “was not prepared to give them another story”.
The Press Council also noted that the reporter had not based the story on one single source, a variety of people and organisations had been approached, and that the newspaper did subsequently publish all letters received on this subject, both for and against.
An interview with Mr Shrapnell would have been desirable (as the editor herself acknowledged) but a balanced story is not confined to the “he claims but he replies” format.
His complaint about a lack of fairness and balance is also not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.