MICHAEL LAWS AGAINST THE WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 2318

Council Meeting: MARCH 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Photographs
Accuracy
Misleading

Mr Laws complains that the Wanganui Chronicle displayed inaccuracy, bias and misrepresentation in an article published in that newspaper on February 12, 2013. He notes that the article was reproduced the same day on the New Zealand Herald website, thereby increasing its potential readership

Mr Laws also complains that Ross Pringle, editor of the Wanganui Chronicle, failed to respond adequately to his original concern.

The Press Council does not uphold Mr Laws’ complaint.

Background
On February 11, 2013 Mr Laws loaded on to his Twitter account an image of Stewart Murray Wilson, a sex offender on parole, with the comment “Posting Stewart Murray Wilson supposedly under Corrections control @fishing comp over weekend. NB: Regis number”. The last remark refers to the registration number of the car that appears in the image. It appears undisputed that the image shows Wilson at the North Mole, a place about I km from Castlecliff.

Later the same day a reporter from the Wanganui Chronicle emailed Mr Laws asking

• Whether he took the photograph of Wilson or whether it was supplied to him
• How Mr Laws knew the person in the photograph was Wilson

He added that the organiser of a fishing contest had said that no one by the name of Wilson was entered in the contest and that he knew of no other fishing contests in the area at that time.

Shortly after dispatching the email the reporter telephoned Mr Laws. The detail of the ensuing conversation is disputed, but it was clearly a short call, terminated by Mr Laws, during which Mr Laws confirmed he had posted the image and expressed extreme surprise that the reporter was questioning the identity of the person in the photograph.

Immediately after the call, Mr Laws sent three emails in response to the reporter’s email. He questioned the reporter’s competence, using quite aggressive language and did not answer the questions.

On February 12, 2013 the Wanganui Chronicle published an article headed “Laws posts Wilson pic”. It included a partial copy of the image posted by Mr Laws. Parts of the background had been cropped so that the image excluded persons other than Wilson.

The article began by saying that Mr Laws was refusing to explain the posting of the photograph on Twitter. It quoted his Twitter message and commented “But inquiries by the Chronicle refute Mr Laws’ claim”.

It said that the Chronicle was aware of two fishing events that took place over the weekend, but that the organiser of one had said that Wilson was not among the entrants and that she had not seen anyone like him at the event. The other event was at Castlecliff Wharf, about 1km from the North Mole. A participant in the Castlecliff wharf event said there was no sign of Wilson there.

The article concluded by saying that Mr Laws would not say whether he took the picture or whether it had been supplied to him and refused to answer further questions.

The Complaint
Mr Laws complained in the first instance to the Wanganui Chronicle and then to the Press Council:

1. He did not refuse to explain the posting.

In his complaint to the Wanganui Chronicle, Mr Laws said there was a 40 second conversation with a reporter from the Wanganui Chronicle, during which Mr Laws confirmed that he had posted the image. He says the reporter then asked what proof he had that the person in the image was Wilson as the organiser of the fishing event said he [Wilson] wasn’t entered. Mr Laws considered the photograph was self-evident and says he was so amazed at the question that he questioned whether the caller really was a reporter and rang off. He was not asked to explain the posting: the only question he was asked was about proof of Wilson’s identity.

In complaining to the Press Council, Mr Laws emphasised that he was not asked to explain anything about a fishing competition but to verify Wilson’s identity. The information about the fishing competition was peripheral. He understood the question to imply that because Wilson had not entered any fishing competition there was implicit doubt as to his identity. He notes also that there was no further attempt to contact him “after I told [the reporter] to use his eyes”.

2. It is a misrepresentation to say that “inquiries by the Chronicle refute Mr Laws’ claim”

In his initial complaint Mr Laws said the only question was whether Wilson was at a fishing competition. There was no dispute that the photo was of Wilson, that Wilson was supposedly under Corrections control, that he was fishing at the North Mole and that the registration number of the car in the image was “that attached to Stewart Murray Wilson”. It is factually incorrect to say that the claim was refuted.

In complaining to the Press Council, Mr Laws added that while Wilson may not have been fishing at a competition, he was fishing “in the near vicinity” and in public company. None of these statements was refuted by the Wanganui Chronicle.

3. The cropped photograph

Mr Laws complained that the Wanganui Chronicle did not use the photograph posted by Mr Laws but cropped it to exclude persons (one a child) near Wilson and the car.

As noted below, it is not clear whether Mr Laws accepted Mr Pringle’s explanation of the use of the cropped photograph. It is mentioned in his subsequent complaint to the Press Council only in the context of the absence of contact from the Wanganui Chronicle after the telephone conversation with its reporter.

4. Remedy claimed

Mr Laws sought “a full correction of the Wanganui Chronicle’s misreporting and a factual statement as to the posting of the Twitter photograph AND correction of the misrepresentation of the brief conversation between Mr Laws and [the reporter]”.

The Wanganui Chronicle response
The editor of the Wanganui Chronicle, Ross Pringle, responded to Mr Laws on the day of his complaint. He said that attempts to contact him for information about the posting had led to Mr Laws insulting a reporter and hanging up before additional questions could be asked, and that the subsequent email messages provided no further information. In addition, the tone of the messages and the termination of the phone call led the Chronicle to believe that he had no Interest in clarifying his position.

He explained that enquiries to those associated with the two fishing events showed that Wilson had not entered either event, nor was he seen near the events. Wilson himself verified that he had fished at the North Mole, accompanied by his minders.

He considered the cropping of the image to be immaterial, and noted that the full frame proved that the photograph was taken at the North Mole.

No apology or retraction was warranted as the article was “a factual account of the process and information obtained.”

In his further response to the complaint to the Press Council, Mr Pringle outlined the events leading to the telephone call to Mr Laws and gave an account of the call which is not dissimilar to that of Mr Laws, although he includes the detail that Mr Laws called the reporter “a stupid boy” before hanging up. He says that proof of identity was only the first point on which clarification was sought and there were other matters to be explored. The reporter was still asking questions when he realised the line was dead.

Mr Laws’ subsequent emails did not answer any of the questions or clarify any of the points raised. The emails and the termination of the phone call made it clear that further attempts at contact would be pointless.

Mr Pringle described the further enquiries made to follow up Mr Laws’ posting, including the contact with Wilson, and with persons associated with the two fishing events.

He added that the image had been cropped to better display the man claimed to be Wilson and that the full image makes it even more clear that the location was the North Mole.

The Chronicle stands by the story as published and its processes in investigating the matter.

Discussion
1. Mr Laws complains that the Wanganui Chronicle was inaccurate and misrepresented him when it said he had refused to explain the posting of the image and accompanying message. He says he was never asked to explain anything about a fishing competition, but to verify Wilson’s identity. He also says there was no further attempt to contact him after the conversation with the Chronicle reporter.

The email and subsequent telephone call to Mr Laws about his posting appear to have been a reasonable attempt to verify the information in his Twitter message. There was clearly a public interest in the whereabouts and behaviour of a notorious criminal. The editor of the Wanganui Chronicle was acting responsibly in following up the story but it would have been irresponsible to publish the information made public by Mr Laws without verifying it.

Mr Laws confirmed he had made the posting but appears to have taken offence at the suggestion that as part of his posting could have been inaccurate – there was no fishing competition at the North Mole and inquiries suggested that Wilson was not at either of the two fishing events in the area – he should provide further verification of Wilson’s identity. It is clear from the intemperate nature of his subsequent emails that he did not intend to provide more information about his Twitter post.

It is probably correct that Mr Laws was not directly questioned about the whereabouts of the fishing competition he mentioned, but the reporter was given no opportunity to ask that question (or any other questions).

Equally, it is true that the Wanganui Chronicle made no further attempt to contact Mr Laws. While accounts differ over what was said during the telephone conversation the reporter it is plain that Mr Laws was at best uncomplimentary and was quite possibly abusive. It is hardly surprising that the reporter chose to find another way to verify the identity of the subject of Mr Laws’ Twitter posting, and it seems that he contacted Wilson himself, who confirmed that he had been fishing at the North Mole.

In the circumstances it was neither inaccurate nor a misrepresentation to say that Mr Laws had not explained his Twitter post. He had not explained it, and it seemed unlikely that he would be disposed to explain it.


2. Mr Laws further complains that it is false and a misrepresentation to say that “inquiries by the Chronicle refute Mr Laws’ claim”.

It seems clear from the context of the article that the claim in question was that Wilson was at a fishing competition and indeed that is what Mr Laws’ posting says.

There is a considerable difference between attending a public event such as a fishing competition and going fishing under supervision some distance away from a public event. Mr Laws has not queried Mr Pringle’s assertion that Wilson was fishing at the North Mole accompanied by his minders.

It was therefore neither false nor a misrepresentation to sat that Mr Laws’ claim was refuted.

3. It is not clear whether Mr Laws still wishes to complain about the cropped photograph. It is mentioned in his original complaint to the editor of the Wanganui Chronicle, which he said was a precursor to a complaint to the Press Council, but is not mentioned in his later complaint directly to the Press Council. It may be that Mr Laws has accepted Mr Pringle’s explanation of the cropping. In any event, the explanation appears to be reasonable.

4. Finally, Mr Laws says he complains about the inadequacy of Mr Pringle’s response to his original complaint. He does not say in what respects he finds the response inadequate, and only mentions this complaint in the introductory part of his letter of complaint, not in the part where he sets out the details of his complaints.

Mr Pringle’s response to the complaint was short, but addressed each of the points made by Mr Laws. Clearly Mr Laws does not accept the response, but that does not mean that the response was inadequate, and there are no obvious grounds for a finding of inadequacy.

Conclusion

For the reasons set out above, the Press Council does not uphold any of Mr Laws’ complaints.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.