MICHAEL LAWS AGAINST WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 2036

Council Meeting: JUNE 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Misleading

The Mayor of Wanganui, Michael Laws (the “Mayor”) complained about an article published on the front page of the Wanganui Chronicle on 16 January 2008. The article was headlined “Silence from City Hall on huge council shortfall”.

The article dealt with a projected $6 million revenue shortfall faced by Wanganui District Council (the “Council”) over the next three years as a consequence of projected zero profits from Wanganui Holdings, the umbrella entity for the Council’s commercial interests. It made reference to an earlier meeting held in December 2007 and referred to the next meeting scheduled for 18 January 2008. The article made it clear further information would be made public following that January meeting.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The Council became aware of a significant projected revenue shortfall in December 2007 at a meeting which was held in camera due to the commercial sensitivity of the information that was then being discussed. The meeting was adjourned until 18 January 2008 to enable further financial information to be tabled.

The Mayor issued a press release dated 8 January 2008. This release referred to both meetings and indicated that the dividend from Wanganui Holdings “may not be as expected” and that this would have repercussions for the Council and ratepayers over the coming three years.

The newspaper did not base any report on the Mayor’s press release in its 9 January edition. This led to a phone call from the Mayor’s office to the newspaper – presumably to try and obtain some reportage of his press release. Later that day a reporter contacted the Mayor and sought further information for an article in the 10 January edition. This article “Council set to tighten spending” gave readers notice of the two meetings and explored, in a preliminary way, areas in which the Council might seek to put brakes on its spending.

Two correspondents responded to this article and had letters to the editor published on 11 and 12 January 2008 respectively. On 13 January the Mayor submitted a reply to these letters which was not published.

On 15 January 2008, a reporter from the newspaper contacted the Mayor to seek additional information about matters which had been raised in the Mayor’s correspondence. The Mayor, in accordance with his earlier indication, declined to make any further comment until after the scheduled 16 January meeting.

The newspaper then published its lead article on 16 January. The Mayor complained to the Press Council.

The Complaint
The Mayor complains:-

• That his letter to the editor addressing the concerns of two earlier correspondents was not published;

• That the 16 January article gave the impression that he was deliberately withholding information from the public despite his earlier assurance that he would not do so;

• That the article also suggested that information had been gleaned from other sources and not from the Mayor or the Council;

• That the newspaper knew that he would be making further comment after the 16 January meeting so the allegation of silence was not fair; and

• That the headline to the article was deliberately misleading.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor acknowledged that the Mayor was not in a position to disclose sensitive information which had not yet had full consideration by the Council. The newspaper was, however, interested in further comment on a suggestion contained in his letter to the editor where it appeared he was blaming the prior district council for the current financial predicament. He referred, for example, to “trading issues surrounding Wanganui Gas…which were inherited by my council and have only just become apparent. Further, he warned, “[y]ou may well find that the causes of this latest reverse pre-date my council’s life”.

The editor maintained that such strong allegations required the newspaper to seek further information particularly when the Mayor was requesting that his letter be published verbatim. The editor advised that the Mayor’s letter “demanded answers and [she] would have been seriously remiss had [she] published it without instructing [her] staff to seek more information.”

When that information was not forthcoming, she declined to publish his letter to the editor. The editor stood by her decision not to publish the Mayor’s letter noting that, in her opinion, it amounted to little more than propaganda when viewed in isolation and that it “did not answer the questions that ratepayers deserved to know”.

The newspaper’s next report made reference to that lack of comment. This article also, however, made it very clear that public comment would be made following the Council meeting. The editor maintained that it was appropriate for the newspaper to report on the Mayor’s lack of comment.

Insofar as the purported impression of information having been obtained from sources other than the Mayor, the editor explained that the use of the terminology “The Chronicle understands…” contained in the article was not used to give an impression of another source, but to differentiate between information which had been confirmed as fact and information which the reporter had concluded as deduction. She maintained there was nothing untoward about this differentiation in the circumstances.

She stood by the headline used as accurately informing readers that questions which the newspaper were trying to have answered, had not been answered at the time of publication. There was not, she argued, any editorial bias.


Discussion
The Press Council has always held that the decision whether any letter to the editor is published is the sole prerogative of the editor of the newspaper. Further information was sought about important aspects of that letter but this was not provided. On that basis, the editor declined to publish the Mayor’s letter as she is entitled to do. There is nothing to support the Mayor’s claim of editorial bias.

The Press Council finds the Mayor’s claim that the article suggested that he was withholding information to be unduly sensitive and, on balance, unfounded. A newspaper has the right to seek further information; the Mayor had the right to withhold further comment. A newspaper can, however, report on any lack of comment.

The use of the phrase that “[t]he Chronicle understands…” as a differentiating technique between two different types of information is, in the Press Council’s view an entirely acceptable journalistic device.

The Press Council is satisfied that the newspaper made it very clear that there would be public comment made by the Council in two days time. It rejects any purported need to report this more extensively than had already occurred.

Finally, the Press Council is satisfied that the headline accurately and fairly conveyed the substance of the report and that it was not, therefore, misleading.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, and Denis McLean.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.