MAUREEN MILDON AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2000

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Maureen Mildon against the Waikato Times over a report of an Employment Relations Authority hearing involving a former colleague of Ms Mildon.

Background
On March 31, 2007, the Waikato Times reported a determination by the ERA in which Ms Elizabeth Kneebone was awarded $4,500 against the Schizophrenia Fellowship Waikato where she had been employed as a field worker.
The report detailed friction in the office including that between Ms Mildon and Ms Kneebone. It quoted the ERA findings that the difficulties were “symptomatic of a failed and dysfunctional relationship.” The newspaper’s account depended on the ERA report but included brief comments on the outcome of the case from Ms Kneebone and the Fellowship. It also included the information that Ms Kneebone and Ms Mildon had attended school and university together and lived on the same street.

The Complaint
Ms Mildon complained that the report was unfair and unbalanced. It breached her privacy in recording she attended the same school and university and lived in the same street as Ms Kneebone. In the case of the university the report was inaccurate as she and Ms Kneebone were in different years. Ms Mildon also complained that fact and comment had been mixed in the report. She suggested the report “may well have damaged my reputation.”

The Newspaper’s Response
Ms Mildon raised her concerns with the Waikato Times in a letter of April 17 to which the editor replied on April 26. He said the findings of the ERA were publicly available and the media had a right to report them. A case which showed how deteriorating relationships could affect the workplace was a matter of legitimate public interest.
In a letter to the Press Council on May 19 the editor said its report was a straightforward account of the matters before the ERA and its findings. It reported briefly the reactions of the parties: Ms Kneebone and the Fellowship. The editor said that a message was left for Ms Mildon seeking comment but she did not reply.
The fact that Ms Kneebone and Ms Mildon lived in the same street and had been educated at the same institutions added to the report of a deteriorating relationship. If the reference to their having been at university together was inaccurate he apologised for that error.
The editor said the report contained no editorial comment. It fully reported Ms Mildon’s side of the story and the ERA’s finding that the relationships did not constitute bullying.
In her further response, received by the Press Council on June 11, Ms Mildon insisted the report was inaccurate because she disputed the facts as presented by Ms Kneebone and did so at the ERA hearing.
Ms Mildon disputed the editor’s suggestion that attempts were made to reach her for comment.

Conclusion
Ms Mildon correctly points out that she is not a party to the dispute and that the determination is based solely on the activities of the Schizophrenia Fellowship Waikato and not any actions of hers. But the report as published clearly spells out the basis of the award and in reporting, in a balanced and unsensational manner, the background the newspaper is not implying fault on Ms Mildon’s part. It makes clear the interaction between the two colleagues did not constitute bullying and specifically records that Ms Mildon sought mediation.
The details of the schooling and the fact the former colleagues lived on the same street is of legitimate interest in such a story. The editor acknowledges that the paper might have been in error in suggesting they were contemporaries at university but this is not of major significance and cannot be characterised as either damaging to Ms Mildon or a gross intrusion of privacy.
There is some dispute as to whether the newspaper made a sustained attempt to contact Ms Mildon for comment. But given that she was neither applicant nor respondent in the hearing this omission is not substantial.
The Press Council has found that the article was substantially based on a public document which it reported accurately. It made clear the basis of the award was dependent on the organisation's actions and implied no fault on Ms Mildon's part. The personal details were not damaging to Ms Mildon nor a breach of her privacy.

The complaint is not upheld.

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