MAX SHIERLAW AGAINST WAINUIOMATA NEWS

Case Number: 2393

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2014

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Wainuiomata News

Ruling Categories: Confidentiality
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Introduction
Max Shierlaw, a Hutt City Councillor, complained that the Wainuiomata News published:

- an article quoting anonymous player sources who said improvements to the local rugby ground were unsuccessful;

- an anonymous letter from a reader alleging local misuse of public funds.

Mr Shierlaw complained both made unsubstantiated allegations, in breach of aspects of Principle 8 (Confidentiality).

The complaint is not upheld in relation to the first element about the upgrade of the rugby ground. The complaint is upheld on the second element in respect of the anonymous letter.

Background
The Wainuiomata News on June 11, 2014 published a news story about the upgrade of William Jones Park to provide a durable playing surface for rugby. The story was headlined "Upgrade "not worth it" " and quoted critical comments from players, who wished to remain anonymous, saying the upgrade had not improved things. The story also quoted the Wainuiomata Rugby Club Chairman who strongly defended the improvements and explained there was a second stage of the upgrade to come.

On June 11 Wainuiomata News also published an anonymous letter from a reader who made a number of vague but potentially serious allegations about local council members in the Hutt Valley.

The Complaint
For both parts of his complaint Mr Shierlaw cites Principle 8 which reads:

Confidentiality
Publications have a strong obligation to protect against disclosure of the identity of confidential sources. They also have a duty to take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that such sources are well informed and that the information they provide is reliable. Care should be taken to ensure both source and publication agrees over what has been meant by "off-the-record".

Principle 1 "Accuracy, Fairness and Balance" is also relevant, as is Principle 5 "Columns, Opinion and Letters".

Taking first the article on the rugby ground, the complainant believes that the use of critical comments from anonymous players was unjustified. Those quoted were going on hearsay rather than personal experience of playing on the field. The complainant believes that players who had recent experience of the ground should instead have been consulted.

The second element of the complaint concerns the published anonymous letter making allegations about Hutt Valley councillors, including knowledge of and failure to act on, misuse of public funds; lack of accountability; and a question about possible local body employment issues. The complainant regards these allegations as serious, says there "is not a shred of evidence to back them" and that the anonymous letter has caused distress and given rise to mistaken allegations in the local community about who authored it.

The Response
On the rugby ground story, the reporter explained to the complainant that he had personally checked the state of the ground after a match and believed this confirmed the players' views about lack of improvement following the upgrade work. He noted that he had included in the story balancing comment from the rugby club saying further improvements would bring the ground up to a standard comparable with Hutt Rec.

On the anonymous letter, the reporter told the complainant the letter was published as "part of a public forum". He further claimed that the allegations "were backed up and although being anonymous there was evidence behind them". He apologised to the complainant on both issues and hoped to discuss the matters in person with him.

The complainant was not satisfied, rejected a meeting, and complained to the Press Council.

The publisher has subsequently responded to the Council that he upholds the paper's position on the rugby ground story. He defends the protection of the identity of the players, who feared an adverse impact on their playing careers if they were quoted in the story.

On the anonymous letter the publisher responds that the journalist tried but failed to contact the author before the letter was published. The publisher says "The letter was cut but should not have been published without speaking with the correspondent". The publisher now notes that "the journalist understands our criteria for letters". The complainant rejected a further offer of a meeting from the publisher.

Discussion and Decision
The story on the rugby ground contained an account of views on both sides - those of the local rugby club and the criticism from players. While it would have been desirable to quote players who had personal experience of the upgraded ground rather than hearsay, the reporter claims that following a game he personally checked on the condition of the ground. An effort seems to have been made to check validity of the facts as required by Principle 8, and in the Council's view overall balance as required by Principle 1 was achieved in the story through quoting contrasting views on the condition of the ground.

The anonymous letter was published without checking with the author. No evidence was advanced in the response of the newspaper that other checks to test the validity of, or that any other support or evidence existed for, the potentially serious allegations made in the letter. The publisher has effectively conceded in his response that the letter should not have been published.

The Council's Confidentiality Principle requires reasonable steps to be taken to establish that confidential sources are well informed and reliable. Principle 5 on columns, opinion and letters provides in part that "Letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest." In a ruling of October 2010 the Council repeated its view that "Letters published with a pseudonym are no longer appropriate in almost every case in modern journalism. A publication which is available for public subscription does a disservice to its readers and the general principle of robust editorial debate by concealing the letter writers' names". The Council went on to say that "The vast majority of newspapers now require correspondents to demonstrate the courage of their convictions by publishing their names."

The Council finds that that the publication of the anonymous letter did not meet the requirements of its principles especially in relation to accuracy, fairness and balance.

The complaint is not upheld in relation to the story about the upgrade of the rugby ground.
The complaint is upheld in relation to the publication of the anonymous letter.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.