Case Number: 877

Council Meeting: MAY 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wainuiomata News

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Editorial Discretion

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Mike Grigg against the Wainuiomata News. The complaint relates to the treatment of three letters to the editor, two of them from the complainant. The editor of the weekly newspaper denied that Mr Grigg had been poorly treated.

A letter from Mike Grigg on 6 December 2001 criticised Councillor Ray Wallace in regard to several Hutt City issues, including his proposed co-chairing of a council committee. Mike Grigg said that “if Mr Wallace wants to earn more money be should get a real job.” A reply from Mr Wallace was appended to the complainant’s letter, and included the claim that it was his taxes that allowed Mike Grigg to sit home all day writing his letters. The complainant was told to “Get out, get a real job” and to try to “get a life”. The editor headed the exchange “Get a life boys!”

Mike Grigg complained that the editor allowed inaccurate and abusive comments from Councillor Wallace to be printed, and that the heading was not an accurate quotation. The material supplied to the Press Council shows a history of debate and highly personal exchanges between Mike Grigg and Ray Wallace in the Wainuiomata News. There does not seem to be anything markedly worse in this particular instance. Mike Grigg cites Press Council principles concerning accuracy, fairness and balance, but the obligations of editors in regard to the presentation of news cannot be carried over automatically into the Letters to the Editor section, where scope is given to individual correspondents to express strongly partisan, even prejudiced, views. The heading given to this particular exchange is not unfair or distorted, although it does demonstrate the editor’s readiness to make himself a third participant in the verbal contest.

On 13 December a further letter from Mike Grigg replied to Councillor Wallace’s “gutless attack” on him and explained why his personal circumstances as a solo parent made that “abuse” so offensive. Again, Councillor Wallace was given a right of reply. He said that the only abuse was in Mike Grigg’s mind, and wished all readers a Merry Christmas. The editor headed this exchange “Merry Christmas and abuse in the mind.” Mike Grigg saw this heading as abusive and not factually correct. The Press Council does not consider there is any substance to this particular aspect of the complaint, although it thinks the heading’s focussing again on the reply rather than on the original letter is unwisely provocative.

A week later there appeared a letter from Jessica Dixon, saying she was sick and tired of the bickering of children, namely Ray Wallace and Mike Grigg. They were boring the rest of the community week in week out with their attacks on each other in the newspaper. They should both be put in “time out” for a while. The editor used this letter as the springboard for arranging a photo of Ray Wallace and Mike Grigg with Father Christmas, the caption beginning “Have you been good boys?”

Mike Gngg objected to several aspects of this episode. He said the heading put on the letter, “Grigg,Wallace should grow up”, was inaccurate, he had been denied a right of reply to Jessica Dixon’s criticism, he had been manipulated into having his photo taken with Councillor Wallace, and the caption of the photo misrepresented previous remarks he had made. The Press Council does not think there is anything seriously amiss in the newspaper’s treatment. Clearly, the editor’s light-hearted bringing together of the two men in a seasonal tableau misfired with Mr Grigg. The heading put on the letter does reflect the substance of what follows, although it might have misled readers into thinking that those actual words had appeared in the letter.

Although the Press Council does not uphold this complaint, it thinks that the editor should reconsider several aspects of his handling of letters, and the standards he requires of contributors. It endorses Jessica Dixon’s plea for correspondents to “focus on the issues of the community” not engage in personal attacks. Many editors do not allow writers of letters and replies to address other correspondents in the second person (you, your). Headings placed on letters ideally should direct readers to what follows, without editorial glosses or comments that may prove inflammatory. Coupling replies onto letters can be overdone and lead readers to believe, as Mr Grigg did, that they should always have a right to reply immediately to anyone who criticises them. Ad hominem attacks on other readers are not tolerated in many newspapers, correspondents being expected to write letters that can stand alone and make their impact through the force and freshness of their ideas.

The complaint is not upheld.