Case Number: 774

Council Meeting: February 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

On September 24, 1999, an article appeared in the Southland Times under the heading "Mayor chairs secret talks on site of Gore sports complex". The Mayor of Gore District, Mrs Mary Ogg complained to the Press Council on four grounds. She said the article was untrue, unbalanced, misleading and sensationalised. She complained about the behaviour of the reporter and photographer in getting the story as disgusting and unprofessional. She described the follow-up article the next day which used her press release as untrue and misleading, principally because of the addition of the sentence "Mrs Ogg still refuses to discuss her intentions over the multi-sports complex". She also took issue with the sub-editorial the same day, citing many of the same phrases and sentences used in the previous stories.

The detail of claim and counterclaim, which characterise this complaint, can be seen in the amount of material submitted - a nine-page complaint from the mayor with nine appendices, the editor's response of six closely typed pages, a 15-page response from the mayor with five appendices, followed by another two-page response from the editor. Numerous justifications and interpretations alternate from side to side, and it is necessary to boil the complaint down to its essentials to resolve it. The first issue relates essentially to what was published. The second essential issue is the behaviour of the reporter and photographer - was it disgusting and unprofessional?

It is necessary to focus on the first and central article. Mrs Ogg says it was false of the article to say the mayor chaired a meeting, the talks were secret, the talks were about the site of Gore's planned sports complex and that Charmaine Smith was not invited. The trigger at the core of this complaint which sets off all that follows seems to be the phrase "secret talks". If you consider the story with a heading such as "Concerned ratepayers in private meeting with mayor", and this is Mrs Ogg's account of what took place, this immediately defuses what followed - the press is not necessarily given entrée to private meetings, no official decisions can be agreed at a private lobby gathering, not all citizens will be invited to such a meeting, and so on.

The Southland Times, having set up a melodramatic scenario with its story "Hush-hush meeting tonight" persisted with that scenario. Thus, the mayor chaired the meeting (there was no official notice or agenda), Mrs Charmaine Smith was angry she had "not been invited" (Mrs Ogg is correct that no formal invitations were issued, and the paper is right that the ratepayers had not invited her in their group), the reporter and photographer were "shoved out" (had they legitimate rights to be there?).

The subsequent minutiae of the complaint that have been detailed seem to stem from the "secret talks" description. Mr McLennan photographed clearly in a lighted room from the dark outside - was he talking? He certainly talked during the meeting - the sports complex being discussed - was it the funding and not the site, and aren't they related? - the reporters emerging from the bushes, or standing on the footpath - weren't they outside, anyway? - the gratuitous sentence "Mrs Ogg still refuses to discuss her intentions" at the end of the second story, which up to that point had balanced the newspaper's first article with Mrs Ogg's own press release version of events. These anomalies are the sad result of a mayor communicating by press release rather than giving an editor the courtesy of a direct communication and subsequently the chance to resolve a complaint forthwith, and a newspaper struggling to find ways to get across clearly the pertinent questions it wants to ask and trying to find the occasion to put them. In the evidence given on both sides of this complaint, neither side behaved as well as it could, and at every point in the development of this complaint there was a course of action or means of expression which might have avoided the more inflammatory behaviour and subsequent ill-feeling on both sides.

To the extent that the newspaper did its job in trying to get to the heart of a story which still contained a strong element of public interest, the complaint is not upheld. The use of the word "chairs" in the headline was careless in that the meeting with ratepayers was informal, however it might have been run, but while "secret talks" may have been extravagant it is not unfair. No publicly elected official dealing with members of the public on a matter of public concern is involved in a private matter. Officials in this position must expect that newspapers will always be curious about the subject of such gatherings, may try to be present and to report on them, and may consider them "secret" or "hush-hush" unless that information is forthcoming. The mayor's claim that such a gathering could not be secret because the newspaper revealed it in an earlier story misses the irony in such a statement. Mrs Ogg's unavailability to discuss this meeting or to comment further can be seen as the genesis of the statement that she "still refuses to discuss her intentions."

As with the other section of this complaint, the behaviour of the reporter and photographer are the subject of markedly distinct interpretations. The truth depends on the point of view. Mrs Ogg says the staff photographer John Hawkins and reporter Heather Peacocke entered the private side door of the mayoral office shouting questions and demanding to be present at a private meeting to which the press had not been invited. They were asked to leave a minimum of six times, the deputy mayor Mr Alister McLennan threatened to call the police, ordered them to leave, and after "arguing and shoving" (Mrs Ogg's words) they did. They shouted and acted in an intimidating and threatening manner, she says. She called it disgusting, unprofessional behaviour and an invasion of her and the ratepayers' privacy. The editor says the reporter and photographer were sent because Mrs Ogg did not respond earlier to questions about the meeting, they stayed in the doorway, introduced themselves, asked questions (Peacocke did raise her voice to Mrs Ogg across the room) and saw Mr McLennan get agitated, threaten to call the police, and push Peacocke in the shoulders. Mrs Ogg replies that Mr McLennan was not agitated, he used diplomacy and decorum, and only because of the persistence and arrogance of the newspaper staff did he threaten to call the police. It is untrue to say at any time that he put his hands on Peacocke, says Mrs Ogg. although it is fair to say that he stood his ground and ushered Hawkins and Peacocke to the door. Both sides are agreed that Mr McLennan did threaten to call the police, which is an indicator that the scene was getting tense and agitated. Mrs Ogg uses the words "arguing and shoving" herself, but does not complain about the reporter or photographer shoving, and so this suggests an action on the part of Mr McLennan. The journalists were persistent and probably rude, trying to get a story which may or may not have been significant in the running saga of the Gore multi-sports complex. They were probably worked up about the "hush-hush meeting" which the paper had signaled. However, journalists being impolite or dogged are not necessarily behaving unethically and this part of the complaint is not upheld.

It is surprising that the mayor did not firmly show the journalists the door but with an invitation to talk to her after the meeting about what transpired, and how that fitted into the whole context of the issue. Such gestures and methods of direct communication would go a long way towards keeping the necessary balance between the freedom of the press and the public's right to know, and individual rights.