JOHN WILSON AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2367

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Accuracy
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by John Wilson against the Sunday Star-Times.

Background
1. The complainant, Mr Wilson, argued that one paragraph of a column by Rod Oram published on December 8, 2013, was ‘grossly misleading’ and, by imputation, breached Press Council principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.
2. The paragraph related to a criticism of government fiscal prudence in relation to the awarding of the Transmission Gully motorway project Public Private Partnership (PPP) to a consortium funded by the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
3. It would cost $900m to build the motorway but the PPP funding would grant $3.12 billion to the consortium over the 25-year contract. According to Mr Oram, this worked out at ‘a taxpayer subsidy of $15 per vehicle per trip over the next 25 years’.
4. Mr Wilson wrote to Fairfax Media staff and the Sunday Star-Times’ editor on 12 December complaining about the figures, particularly the ‘massive profit of approximately $2.22 billion at the expense of the Government/Taxpayer’ implied in the column. He stated that this should include ongoing maintenance and operations costs to be borne by the consortium but that was not evident in the way the column was written. He also claimed that the reference to the ‘subsidy’ was misleading, as the Government would have to maintain a road regardless.
5. The managing editor of Fairfax Business Day responded to what she had interpreted as a letter to the editor from Mr Wilson, indicating that Mr Oram’s column is an opinion piece. She included a response from Mr Oram justifying his opinion at some length. Mr Oram, in his response, had admitted that maintenance would cost a maximum of $300 million over 25 years, making a total construction and operating cost of $1.2 billion and recognising that the consortium would have a higher cost of capital than would have occurred if it was purely government funded.
6. Mr Wilson responded that his complaint was not a ‘letter to the editor’ and he didn’t want it published as such. If it was published, he wanted his name removed. He still believed that Mr Oram’s claim of fiscal irresponsibility by Government was unjustifiable given the figures he had cited. He recognised Mr Oram’s confirmation that the figures should have incorporated maintenance costs but was still dissatisfied with ‘other extra costs to be borne by the PPP which Mr Oram has not quantified’. He wished for acknowledgement of the misleading figures and comparison of his figures against Mr Oram’s by an independent assessor.
Unfortunately, the managing editor had sent the letter to press with Mr Wilson’s name on it prior to receiving his embargo on this happening. She did not feel the column required correcting in the light of the further clarification by Mr Oram, and had given prominence to Mr Wilson’s letter on page 2 of the business section, along with Mr Oram’s response.

The Complaint
7. Still dissatisfied, Mr Wilson complained to the Press Council, raising the same issues. He believed that Mr Oram’s response continued the columnist’s criticism of the Transmission Gully proposal without fully addressing Mr Wilson’s complaint. This was forwarded to the editor.

The Newspaper’s Response:
8. Sunday Star-Times deputy editor responded to the complaint as the original editor was on leave. He rebutted the claim that the column was ‘grossly misleading’. He stated that including a cost of $300m of maintenance across a 25 year period would be equivalent to a homeowner factoring in the cost of house maintenance over that period when applying for a loan. He presented Mr Oram’s justification of his rationale that the consortium would receive a higher level of capital cost ($900m) compared with the government’s share, and this would be the same regardless of the maintenance cost. The point about the ‘$15 subsidy’ seems to be ‘a matter of semantics’. As the column is an opinion piece, based on Mr Oram’s arguments presented in the column and his response, it is fair and balanced. The two men have different opinions on the figures and what they convey.

9. Mr Wilson had the right to respond to the editor, and he continued to maintain that Mr Oram’s claim of fiscal irresponsibility was based on grossly misleading figures. He agreed he did not know additional costs of design, financing, maintenance and operating faced by the consortium. He maintained that the $15 is not a subsidy. Additional information he provided did not form part of his initial complaint and is therefore not included.

Discussion:
10. This complaint essentially relates to different interpretations of figures by two people, a regular columnist with the Sunday Star-Times and a complainant who feels he has competence in the financial area. Both present arguments to support their points of view, but the points of view differ.
11. The editors have considered the complaint and the response submitted by Mr Oram, justifying why he held his opinion, and believe that the column, as an opinion piece, is still fair and balanced when the figures are interpreted as Mr Oram has done. Mr Wilson disagrees.
12. The Press Council can understand why Mr Wilson raised his concerns initially, as Mr Oram had not spelled out the inclusion of the ongoing operational costs in the column. However, the paper’s publication of both Mr Wilson’s letter and Mr Oram’s response makes these costs clearer. There are still aspects of the PPP that are made clear by neither complainant nor columnist, and the Council cannot speculate on these, neither is it fair to expect the paper to do so.
13. The Press Council believes that the paper has acted appropriately. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.