KAY DAVIDSON AGAINST HOKITIKA GUARDIAN

Case Number: 2349

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hokitika Guardian

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Kay Davidson complained about a letter that she had written to the Hokitika Guardian having a signature appended by the editor that linked her to a group. She had not signed her letter thus.

Background
On September 23, 2013 the Hokitika Guardian published an article concerning a campaign photograph used in publicity for a local body candidate group named Westland’s Future. The photograph, also published in the Guardian, showed seven team members standing on a railway track. Kiwi Rail had pointed out that the group was trespassing by being on the rail tracks and putting themselves at risk by doing so. The leader of the group had apologised to Kiwi Rail saying they hadn’t realised at the time that what they were doing was illegal.

Concerned by aspects of the article, Ms Davidson wrote a letter to the paper. She pointed out that locals regularly crossed or walked along the tracks as they knew when the few trains used the track, Her letter was published in the Hokitika Guardian on September 24. Her signature had been amended by the editor to show "Kay Davidson, Westland's Future, Hokitika". She had signed only as Kay Davidson. She said she was a volunteer member of the team but not a candidate for local body elections nor a public spokesperson for the team.

She emailed the editor immediately expressing her concern about the incorrect inclusion of her link to the Westland's Future team; reiterated that she had written as a private individual not a spokesperson for the team, and requested a correction be printed. The editor replied that he considered her 'close association' with the team as relevant.

Ms Davidson rebutted the editor's statement, indicating that she was 'just a typist for the team, nothing more than that' and that they were unaware she was writing the letter. She reiterated concerns she had about the tenor of the article in its mention of trespassing and fines because the group in the photo had been standing on railway lines, whereas this was a common practice by locals crossing the tracks on the rarely-used line.

The editor replied that regardless of whether Ms Davidson was 'just a typist', she was closely aligned with the group and 'your letter needed to be appended as such. Sorry, but that's how it is.'

The Complaint
Ms Davidson then contacted the Press Council, citing principles of accuracy, fairness and balance in terms of her own personal communication, and discrimination in that she was not permitted to 'speak in my own right'. She was NOT speaking on behalf of the group. She included the principle of comment and fact having been breached, as she is not a spokesperson for the group.

Response
The editor's response indicated that during the local body elections, written responses to queries about the team were 'often' provided by Ms Davidson on behalf of various candidates. He felt that readers deserved to know she had 'more than a passing interest in this matter' as her letter had criticised possible action by rival candidates. He had allowed Ms Davidson a lengthy letter so she could more fully convey her argument.

In her final comments, Ms Davidson held to her argument that the letter had been from her as an individual and claimed that she had replied to queries from the Hokitika Guardian during the local body elections only twice, as key people were unavailable for various reasons.

Decision
In her initial complaint, Ms Davidson described herself as a volunteer member of the Westland's Future team 'as typist, web developer, publicity officer and general jack of all trades'. In her letter to the Hokitika Guardian, she had suggested that the offending article had occurred because 'it appears very likely to me that an opponent of the Westland's Future team (or one of their supporters, either a mayoral or an individual candidate) has seen fit to forward' the brochure containing the track-side photo to Kiwi Rail. She further suggested that 'it has been done solely for political gain by the person or persons involved'; hence the letter had a clearly political intention.

The Press Council agrees with the editor that readers do deserve to know any relevant affiliations of letter-writers, particularly during election campaigns. In similar situations previously, editors have added a footnote to the letter, signed by the editor, indicating an affiliation. In this case the editor should have followed this process instead.

The Council accepts that Ms Davidson's letter was submitted as a personal view, and that for the paper to identify her in a way that could have caused her letter to be seen as an official Westland's Future team view was unfortunate.

However, given the overtly political content of the letter, the Press Council finds that the affiliation was worthy of noting.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.