JOY DOWNES AND BOB SYRON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2001

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Confidentiality
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Mrs Joy C Downes and Mr R Syron complained about an article which was published in The New Zealand Herald on Jan 10, 2007. The article described a coastal property which Joy Downes had listed for sale with a real estate agency. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The article was written by the Property Editor. It was headlined “Million-Dollar Bach” and was accompanied by a small photograph of the property. The lead posed the question: “What does seven figures buy you at the beach?”
The article went on to note the discrepancy between the asking price ($1.5million) and “what you get” (a “small, old bach with two bedrooms, one bathroom, the water tank out the back”) and suggested that this discrepancy, coupled perhaps with “months of cold weather”, had been the reason for the lack of interest since the property had been listed, in July 2006.
The owner was cited as a Cecily Downes, of the Gold Coast, Australia, and the real estate agent who had the listing was quoted, at some length, explaining why the property might be worth considering, despite what might seem a steep asking price.
It is clear that the article was written with the general reader in mind, rather than the experienced dealer in real estate.

The Complaint
Joy Downes first complained to the Press Council on 1 March, 2007.
There is some confusion about an earlier letter apparently sent to The NZ Herald by Joy Downes to which no reply was received. The Deputy Editor later said there was no such letter on their files. (A copy of this earlier letter was later sent to the Press Council by her brother, Bob Syron, but he also noted that the letter was undated.)
What is clear, however, is that Bob Syron took up the complaint on behalf of his sister, with another letter to the Council, on 20 April. That he had authority to act as her agent in pursuing the matter was later confirmed, in writing, by Joy Downes.
On 15 June, Bob Syron replied, on behalf of his sister, to the newspaper’s initial response to their formal complaint.
Their letters traversed various areas where they considered that The NZ Herald had displayed “disgraceful ethics”. Although they did not specify particular Principles which had been transgressed, it was obviously their view that The NZ Herald had been inaccurate and unbalanced and so had treated the owner, Joy Downes, unfairly.
The newspaper had also failed in its obligations in the areas of confidentiality and privacy.
Their overall complaint can be divided into two distinct concerns.
Firstly, Joy Downes was distressed by the negative tone of the article. She thought the details provided only a “degrading description” of the property, so much so that it was “now totally unsaleable”. She listed various ways the writer had downplayed her property, including calling the “cottage” (her term) a “small, old bach”, the repeated reference to the outside water tank (which was actually the norm for most properties along this beachfront), the mention of “rough surf and chilling winds” and the various ways in which the high price had been stressed.
These claims were reinforced by Bob Syron in his letters. He felt that the information supplied by the newspaper “was negative to the point of rendering the property and location, valueless”. He supplied a similar list of “errors and distortions”, including the agent “laughing” at the price. He also claimed that supplying the quotable value estimates of the property’s worth was a “blatant disregard for privacy and marketing ethics”.
In summary, he considered that the newspaper had a responsibility not to undermine property values but in this case the “negatives reported had a serious effect on the value”.
Secondly, both felt that publishing a photograph of the bach without permission, and supplying readers with the name of the owner and her address, were breaches of confidentiality, privacy and trust.
Further, The NZ Herald had been inaccurate in at least two instances; the owner’s name was Joy Downes, not Cecily Downes, and the colour of the bach was not pink but pale green (according to Joy Downes) or cream (according to Bob Syron).


The Newspaper’s Response.
The Deputy Editor’s response was straightforward. He pointed out that the article was never designed to be a piece of positive marketing; it was, rather, journalism which aimed “to serve the reader”. He stated that their obligation was not to the owner, but to the newspaper’s readers.
Further, and in any case, the article was a “fair and balanced assessment of a property that had been publicly offered for sale”.
He noted that the land values are not confidential – they can be published because they are a matter of public record. He added that the real estate agent had spoken openly about the property and that it had also been available for viewing on the internet.
It had appeared “bright pink” on the agent’s website.
If the newspaper had been inaccurate over the owner’s name, this was because the agent had called her Cecily Downes during the interview and it was reasonable for the journalist to assume that she went by her middle name.
He responded to the point that the bach was rendered unsaleable because of the Herald article by suggesting that the bach had been on the market for six months before the article appeared, but “not one single person had been to look” i.e. it seemed to be the unrealistic price tag which was the cause of the lack of interest, not the piece by the Property Editor.

Conclusion

The Press Council notes that this article was never intended to be, nor should it have been, an advertisement for the property. It was a piece designed to inform readers about the market, and perhaps to note, in a lively, good-humoured way, that even beachfront properties, even in a strong market, have a point where buyers are simply dissuaded by price.
It is the Council’s view that the article was both fair and balanced. For example, there are many positives noted about the property: the bach is “classic”, it is in “immaculate” condition, it stands on a “valuable” section (of 1012 sq m) and enjoys “views of Lion Rock”. The agent’s defence of the pricing is covered in some detail, including his suggestion that a larger house could be built at the front of the section. The particularly close proximity to the beach is noted.
It is very difficult to see how covering all these positive features made the bach “unsaleable”.
It is also difficult to see how the article breached confidentiality and privacy issues.
Here, the point made by the Deputy Editor of the NZ Herald, that it was advertised on the internet, is telling. It is not a breach of confidentiality to publish a photograph that has already been put up on a real estate website.
Further, it is not a breach of privacy to give the name of an owner of a property when it is on public record. And finally, publication of an address in such general terms as Gold Coast, Australia does not constitute an invasion of personal privacy.
Finally, two minor inaccuracies. The newspaper might perhaps have the shade wrong but then the complainants seem to see the bach differently as well.
The Council also acknowledges that the complainant is Joy C Downes, not Cecily Downes, and the newspaper was incorrect, even if her agent certainly seemed to have used Cecily Downes when talking about the owner. These inaccuracies are inconsequential in the overall context of their complaint.
The article in question was interesting, informative and appropriate. The various complaints are not upheld.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.