MAX SHIERLAW AGAINST HUTT NEWS

Case Number: 2560

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hutt News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Offensive Language

Overview

1. Max Shierlaw objects to a news report of objections filed against an application to expand a brothel and escort agency operating from a house in Pharazyn St, Melling. The report forHutt News, Stuff and The Dominion Post highlighted concerns that an operation employing more prostitutes would lead to the “breakdown of the nuclear family” and provide cheap sex for truck drivers. Mr Shierlaw complains the report lacked accuracy fairness and balance because only a minority of objectors raised family issues and the majority objected on legitimate planning considerations under the Resource Management Act, which, he maintains, the report did not cover. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

2. As a former Hutt City councillor, Mr Shierlaw met with Pharazyn St residents to discuss the brothel application and advise them on the process. He says he always advised people in this situation to include every conceivable argument in their submission because it is better to be told something is not relevant than to omit something that is relevant and be unable to raise it later in the process.

3. The news report of objector’s submissions did not reflect their main themes, which were: nuisance and serious offence to members of the public, incompatibility with the character of the area and breaches of provisions of the Prostitution Law Reform Act 2003, the Hutt City Council District Plan and the brothel’s current consent to operate as a “home occupation”.

4. Instead the reporter produced a “highly selective” report which focused on family issues. The vast majority of submissions were concerned with disturbance, noise, nuisance, alcohol related issues and, most important, incompatibility with the area. The story had not covered any of these.

5. Mr Shierlaw believes, “(the reporter’s) intention was to ridicule the submitters”. He found the tenor of the article extremely offensive. “These are just ordinary lay people seeking to engage in a process which they have little professional expertise in. They deserve better than to be ridiculed by a journalist.”

The Response

6. The Editor in Chief of the Dominion Post, Bernadette Courtney, agreed the reporter had been selective because it would impossible to cover all objections. But in highlighting family concerns he had focused on a fairly common theme in the submissions.

7. The report had in fact mentioned many of the other concerns that Mr Shierlaw says it ignored. One sentence read, “Neighbours claim it will lead to drug abuse, a loss of property values, undesirables hanging around, and extra traffic.”

8. To demonstrate that factors other than family concerns played a significant part in the council planning officer’s recommendation to decline the application, the newspaper quoted her as, “noting many of the issues raised by neighbours, including the breakdown of the nuclear family, were not covered by the Resource Management Act.”

The Complainant’s Response

9. Mr Shierlaw said the article had mentioned non-family related objections after its “sensationalist” opening and since the report did not indicate which objections were valid under the Act and which were not, readers would assume all were fanciful claims. The article was inaccurate in so far as it sought to portray the objectors raising only “fanciful objections”. It was unbalanced in that it failed to provide equal coverage of relevant objections and did not give the Prostitute Collective’s response to any of the valid objections.

The Decision

11. At the Press Council’s request the complainant has supplied it with submissions from two groups of objectors, one that contained the reference to “the breakdown of the nuclear family” which was highlighted in the news report, the other from the Pharazyn St Residents’ Collective that set out its concerns in terms the complainant prefers. He says the first submission represented fewer than 10 residents [the Council notes there were in fact around 100] whereas the second was made on behalf of “many dozens” of people but no mention was made of it in the news story.

12. In fact the Pharazyn St Residents Collective’s submission also makes reference to concerns for the effects on families, stating, “A brothel at this location is completely out of character with Pharazyn St, being a largely peaceful residential street with many families with school age and younger children.”

13. While this might not have been a relevant concern under the Act, and therefore not one of the persuasive points for the council’s planning officer’s recommendation, it was not inaccurate or unfair for the reporters to highlight this objection. Newspapers are free to take an angle that will interest readers, they are not obliged to follow the prescriptions of legislation.

14. This story did in fact mention other points of objection — drug abuse, property values, undesirables in the neighbourhood and traffic. The complainant is not being accurate or fair when he says the reporter did not cover any of the legitimate RMA issues.

15. The story highlights the basic conflict between a brothel and family life in a residential neighbourhood and it is balanced with the views of the Prostitutes’ Collective. The complainant is offended bythe reference to "Fanciful Objections" in the headline but this is taken from a quote and reflects the Prostitutes Collective's view of the factual basis of some of the objections, not their legal relevance.

16. The story records the council planner’s recommendation to decline the application while quoting her saying issues such as the breakdown of the nuclear family were not relevant under the Resource Management Act. A reader could therefore easily deduce that other concerns, some of which the story had mentioned, were relevant and persuasive.

17. The Press Council can see nothing wrong with the report. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Ruth Buddicom, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

Liz Brown took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

Mark Stevens stood down so as to ensure the public member majority.