MICHAEL AND CAROLYN WRIGHT AGAINST WAIMEA WEEKLY

Case Number: 2222

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Waimea Weekly

Ruling Categories: Confidentiality
Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Conflict of Interest

Michael and Carolyn Wright, owners of a Richmond retirement village, complained that a series of articles in the Waimea Weekly about a lease increase were inaccurate, displayed a lack of balance, breached confidentiality, failed to distinguish comment from fact and did not disclose a conflict of interest.

The complaint was upheld on lack of balance.

The complainants said the editor's parents lived in the retirement village and this was not disclosed to readers. The editor, Steve Page, did not contest this information or answer any of the issues raised. He told the Press Council he would not participate in consideration of a complaint he thought "frivolous".

The Articles
The Waimea Weekly reported that residents of the complainants' property, Waimea Village, had challenged a valuation that was to be the basis of a 120 percent increase in lease payments. It said the Wrights were "seeking substantial increases....to cover management costs, manager's salary, managers' accommodation and vehicle leases - all of these costs going into their own pockets."

A subsequent article reported a lease increase recommended by accountants and said some residents feared being forced from their homes because they could not afford it. That article stated, "Both Michael Wright and (accountant) John Murray refused to comment when contacted by Waimea Weekly."

Later the paper reported a visit by Labour Party deputy leader Annette King to hear the resident's concerns and plans by a Labour list MP, Maryan Street, to draft a bill designed to protect residents in unregistered retirement villages such as Waimea Village.

The final article subject to the complaint, dated August 24, reported that unnamed residents were moving out of the village and one accused its owners of "bullyism".

The Complaint
Michael and Carolyn Wright complained that the articles contained inaccuracies, breached confidentiality, were unbalanced, failed to distinguish comment from fact and failed to disclose a conflict of interest.

They made two charges of inaccuracy. They said a statement that, "In May the arbitrator valued the property at $1.7 million" was factually incorrect, and that far from "fleeing the village", as the final article claimed, most houses were vacated because occupiers had either died or gone into full time care or were releasing their equity in rental properties.

On the issue of balance, they said, "At no time was there an attempt to contact us to obtain a comment or check out the other side of the story."

They believed the series of articles became less about the village and more a personal attack on them.

The Response
Mr Page, did not reply to the Wright's complaint to him. When he was advised of their complaint to the Press Council he told the Council: "we will not be participating in what we see as frivolous complaints by individuals such as these."

Decision
While noting that the editor has previously participated in the complaints process, the Press Council records its strong displeasure at the non-response of the editor in this case.

The Wrights complained on five grounds: inaccuracy, lack of balance, breach of confidentiality, failure to distinguish comment from fact and a conflict of interest.

The complaint of inaccuracy was not upheld. When errors are alleged the complainant can be expected to specify what is wrong and supply correcting information. This complaint lacked the required precision and offered no new information or evidence that would allow the Council to make a finding of inaccuracy.

On the question of balance, the complaint that the newspaper had made no attempt to contact the village owners was in conflict with a statement in one of the articles that Michael Wright and his accountant John Murray had refused to comment when contacted by Waimea Weekly. However, it is clear that in the majority of the articles there was no comment from the owners, and no record that they had been contacted. The tone of the articles was unabashedly on the side of the residents. The Council felt the newspaper should have made greater efforts to contact the complainants and include their response to the severe criticisms made of them by unnamed residents.

The Council found no breach of confidence on the part of the newspaper and no failure to distinguish comment from fact. The articles were presented as fact. Quotations were clearly marked, though residents’ comments were anonymous.

The complainants advise that the editor’s parents are resident in the village. Given the strong advocacy of the articles and the lack of any balancing voice, readers would have been better-served, and better able to assess the articles, by having this fact drawn to their attention.

The complaint is upheld on grounds of lack of balance.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.