Case Number: 842

Council Meeting: September 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Koolfoam Industries Ltd (hereafter Koolfoam or complainant) lodged a complaint with the Press Council about the contents of an article printed in the New Zealand Herald on 31 May 2001 under the headline “Homeowner fears rot may deepen”. The article was by-lined Kevin Taylor. The Council did not uphold the complaint.

The article of 31 May was principally about the tribulations of a particular homeowner named Ron Berman who had purchased a home off the plan of a developer and a builder constructed the house. The cost of the home was $260,000. The problems for Mr Berman, who had been in the house for 3 years, were quite extensive stemming from leaking around window frames causing damage. Mr Berman termed the troubles he faced as a disgrace.

The article summed up Mr Berman’s problems in the following way:
‘His house is one example of a growing problem with new homes leaking and rotting after builders used untreated kiln-dried timber and “chilly bin” claddings.’

The article then went on to recount the frustrations of Mr Berman in seeking redress but in particular by being passed between builder and developer with neither accepting responsibility. A director of Mediterranean Precast Ltd, Mr Daniel Nakhle was quoted as saying he felt so strongly about the use of effectively “packing material” cladding on houses that three years ago he developed a tilt-slab concrete wall system. Mr Nakhle said senior council building officials had told him polystyrene construction would be “the biggest disaster story of the decade” for the building industry. Other comments followed from several sources making it clear that leaking houses were a multi-faceted problem.

Koolfoam is a commercial user of the polystyrene product. Mark Maiden, its managing director, wrote first to the editor of the newspaper but on failing to get a response complained to the Press Council. His complaints were mobilised around two main issues: the use of the term “chilly bin” claddings and the comments of Mr Nakhle, particularly his quote from senior building officials.

The response of the Herald was to draw to the Council’s attention that the article of 31 May about which Koolfoam complained was only one of a series on the subject published by the Herald. On May 26 an article entitled “Houses rot as industry quarrels”; on May 29 “Builders’ insurance counts cost”; on May 30 “Laws offer little help for the problem of rotten timber”; and “Coping if the rot sets in: a guide for homebuyers”; May 31 the subject article and on June 2 “How the rot set in ”, all connected with the problem of leaking houses. Not unreasonably the Herald asked that the complaint of Koolfoam be set in the context of a comprehensive set of stories on the issue run by the New Zealand Herald. Mr Maiden’s complaint on behalf of Koolfoam did not mention the other 5 articles in close proximity to the one Koolfoam complained about.

Koolfoam complained about the failure of the journalist to make in the article sufficient distinction between an installation issue and a materials issue. It also complained that sources quoted were not sufficiently checked for accuracy and that Mr Maiden was unfamiliar with the term “chilly bin” cladding as said to be used in the industry. He maintained “chilly bin” claddings referred specifically to polystyrene. The term had been more widely defined in a previous article as including stucco, fibre- cement and polystyrene. A further point of the complainant was that Mr Nakhle had not been identified as a competitor and was therefore not unbiased. This point had little force as it was fairly plain from the subject article he was a commercial competitor. Koolfoam also complained that the Herald did not at first respond to its complaint to the editor. The Herald, who pleaded pressure through industrial disputes and disrupted communications, conceded this. That issue may now be left there.

For the Press Council the starting point had to be examination of the full series of articles covering only a week on a matter of considerable public interest. The totality of the articles went much further than the one issue of “chilly bin” cladding and the use polystyrene. The Herald articles demonstrated that for the homeowner leaking houses are a serious problem and the exercise of sheeting home liability a frustrating process.

Although the complainant did not specify Principle 1 of the Council’s Principles, namely that of Accuracy, it was the one implied was transgressed. Was the newspaper at all times guided by accuracy, fairness and balance and was there anything misleading or which might contain misinformation? The Council’s firm view is that the newspaper did not offend on the grounds of accuracy, or in any other way. The newspaper was doing exactly what a responsible newspaper should do and that was devoting considerable time and resources to a problem in our society that needed attention.

The complainant’s particulars focussed on so-called omissions and failures to go more deeply into the issues about “chilly bin” claddings and the utility of polystyrene as a useful building material. The article in question did contain a sensible balancing comment on the use of polystyrene as a useful building material provided that it was used and applied correctly within the boundaries of its inherent characteristics. The complaint about the senior building officials can safely be left to the readers’ judgment.

The complaint was not upheld.