Case Number: 891

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Kapiti Observer

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

The Kapiti Environmental Action (KEA) group has complained about a series of articles in the Kapiti Observer which the group says were inaccurate and damaging to its reputation.

The group, in its own words a volunteer community group set up 12 years ago to protect and enhance the environment of the Kapiti Coast, has on six occasions appealed decisions by the Kapiti Coast District Council to the Environment Court. One of the appeals, involving a resource consent application by landowners named Frandi and the consequences flowing from it, is the subject of the articles in question.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

The sequence of events is that the Frandis became aware after purchase there was a specified building site for the section that did not suit their own plans for building. They applied for a new resource consent which the council granted after some modifications.

KEA appealed to the Environment Court against this, as they state, and report that it was settled by all parties, the consent order being dated by the Environment Court April 3 this year and having attached to it agreed conditions for landscaping, planting and appearance of the house.

KEA then applied to the Environment Court for a Declaration as to the correct interpretation of section 221 (3) of the Resource Management Act. Under this provision, the district council appeared able to vary conditions attaching to consents for subdivisions without any public notification. The legal issue for KEA was whether the section which allowed the council to act as it did should more correctly be interpreted in the overall context of the Act.

The Environment Court judge decided in favour of KEA; the Frandis joined in the appeal to the High Court where the judge overturned the Environment Court decision. KEA viewed the result "with misgivings" and applied to the Ministry for the Environment for help to appeal to the Court of Appeal, and was granted $10,000 towards legal costs.

The sequence of articles began when the Kapiti Observer approached KEA about its lost appeal in the High Court. The story "Dream wrecked by lengthy court battle" on November 29 reported "A couple's retirement dream of a semi-rural home with miniature horses in the back yard has been held up for over two years by court action. And John and Janice Frandis’ wait looks likely to continue, despite winning a High Court appeal against the environmental action group which is fighting their building plans, with another appeal lodged against them in the Environment Court." Since the ongoing appeal is to the Court of Appeal, this last reference to the Environment Court threw confusion into the newspaper report. In the follow-up article, this was correctly reported.

KEA had emphasised the complicated nature of the case earlier and tried to separate out its application for a Declaration from the Frandis' case, although the Frandis obviously continued to see that they were indissolubly linked in. KEA did not respond to the article because it said it did not want to upset negotiations on the new resource consent or the Frandis, believed a newspaper was not the place for argument about an unfinished legal case and had no confidence in the newspaper's reporting.

The second article on February 2 this year headed "KEA given $10,000 for house site battle" reported that "Mr and Mrs Frandi have been unable to build on their section for three years as a result of legal action between KEA and the council and themselves."

It also reported KEA chairperson June Rowland saying that they were arguing a point of law, not trying to stop the Frandis from building their house. "These are separate issues, they could still build their house if they agreed to the landscaping plan." The newspaper quoted the Frandis' lawyer Glen Evans saying that this was not correct. He said the Frandis' building plans were “completely blocked by legal action”.

This difference seems to lie at the heart of the complaint. While the newspaper has taken the human interest angle of the Frandis’ plight, KEA has found the articles and their headlines inaccurate and damaging, saying "they portray KEA as a group which is persecuting innocent landowners through a lengthy and expensive Court process."

If the Frandis had decided to go ahead and build while KEA sought rulings on its concern with section 221 (3), there could be difficulties for them. It seems the Frandis, as the applicant for the resource consent, must remain subject to any legal consequences flowing from a decision on a Declaration which might overturn the council's original consent.

KEA is concerned especially about subdivisions on dune land and says its action is in the public interest and unrelated to the Frandis, but the letter applying for funds to the Ministry for the Environment was headed Kapiti Environmental Action v Frandi & Kapiti Coast District Council. KEA's own statement referred to "its effort to obtain through the Courts a remedy for the practice of the Kapiti Coast District Council" which may well have an impact on the Frandis.

On February 21, an article "Belligerent attitude splits KEA" told of political activist Lowell Manning being asked to resign from KEA after he was critical of KEA's failure to defend itself when attacked on this issue. The newspaper reported him as saying "the moment the Frandis appealed to the High Court the issue had become a point of law. When KEA was attacked in the media all KEA had to do was simply explain the situation … Unfortunately, the Frandis have become the meat in the sandwich." June Rowland was quoted as saying "[Lowell Manning's] belligerent attitude is not in sympathy with KEA's general approach."

The editor defended the accuracy of the articles and the approach taken, the research put into them and the attempts made to get KEA's side of the story. A strongly opinionated column headed "Passionate concern or blinkered extremism?" (December 17) and letters for and against KEA represented validly held opinion on a matter of public interest, she said.
The newspaper offered to publish KEA’s letter to the editor criticising the articles (it had been headed “Not For Publication”) with an abridged reply from the editor, while it was also open to KEA to participate in the ongoing exchange of views which took place in the Letters to the Editor column.

Added to its general complaint, KEA said it was not pleased by the editor's use of the words "fight" and "battle", and had told the reporter the issue was complicated but she continued "to write a story based on a one-sided view and lack of adequate research" and that KEA's excellent reputation had suffered.

The newspaper on the whole has succeeded in a solid attempt to present an environmental issue story with a human face. Lack of accuracy does not always follow because the procession of detail carefully drawn out by interested parties has of necessity been summarised, usually under newspaper pressures of limited space and the need to get to the heart of a story for the general reader. Nor is it the function of newspapers to run stories in terms that interest groups require.

In this case, it was not for the environmental group to say that the Frandis did not have to appeal to the High Court, or to instruct the Frandis to go ahead and build because their site modifications had been resolved by negotiation, while at the same time it pursued legal action which in the cautious view of the Frandis' lawyer had 'completely blocked their building plans'. This is more a difference of opinion between KEA and the Frandis' lawyer and not necessarily legitimate grounds for grievance against the newspaper for reporting it.

The complaint is not upheld.