NATASHA BENFELL AGAINST ROTORUA DAILY POST

Case Number: 2540

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Daily Post

Ruling Categories: Advertisements
Discrimination
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Natasha Benfell, who was standing in the recent local body elections, has complained that she was not included in a Rotorua Daily Post lift-out on September 13 that ran short profiles of those standing.

She asserted it published details of only 18 out of the 35 candidates for council, the mayoralty and the DHB board.

2. She has cited breaches of Press Council Principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, comment and fact, and discrimination and diversity.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

3. Ms Benfell has confirmed she did receive an invitation from the newspaper to submit a short 150 word profile and a photo, but she only discovered later it had gone to her Spam folder.

4. Over subsequent weeks she said she received numerous emails and telephone calls from the newspaper’s advertising sales people offering her “very expensive advertising packages” - the cheapest being $1600 according to one candidate - which was not an option she could take up.

5. She said other candidates who were not in the lift-out said they were told they would only be in the lift-put if they bought other advertising.

6. She had also received “hate mail” from those who thought she was not in the lift-out because she could not be bothered.

7. She felt she was not treated equally as a new candidate and that her campaign was put at a serious disadvantage.

8. Ms Benfell provided information from two other candidates who had taken issue with being left out of the paper’s coverage.

9. She believes the newspaper should have followed up on those candidates that did not respond. And she suggested it could have run the profiles included in the council booklet provided to voters.

The Response

10. NZME’s regional editor for the Bay of Plenty editor Scott Inglis, in response, said NZME had written to local body candidates using official lists containing email addresses supplied by the chief returning officer.

11. He provided a copy of that email, which invited candidates to supply a 150-word profile plus a photo.

12. It stated the offer was “Editorial content that is independent of any Advertising”. It also preserved the right to edit responses and stated “the Editor’s decision on publication is final”.

13. As well as the election lift-out on September 13 the paper also intended to run a full candidate list in its weekend publication on September 16.

14. Mr Inglis said candidates who responded were included in the September 13 guide that “did not contain candidate advertising and was published as a service to readers”.

15. If candidates supplied an email address on which to be contacted, it was their responsibility to manage that account, and its various folders and spam settings.

16. He said he was not in a position to respond in relation to communications between the complainant and advertising staff. Editorial coverage was never conditional on buying advertising.

17. In relation to follow-ups with those who did not respond, he said the large number standing across all local authorities made that impractical.

18. 31 candidates for the mayoralty, two councils and the Lakes community board responded after the email was sent, as did 18 standing for the DHB.

19. He was willing to make amends if an email was sent to the wrong address or the newspaper failed to include a response that met the criteria it set. “However, from what we can currently see from Natasha Benfell’s complaint, this is not such a case.”

20. In response to her point about republishing the council booklet, he said the paper would not republish entire election booklets produced by another organisation.

The Decision

21. Ms Benfell is understandably frustrated that she missed out on the opportunity to lift her profile by being included in the candidate lift-out.

22. However, the newspaper did send her the invitation to take part, as she acknowledges, and it rightly argues it is her responsibility to manage her email. The newspaper was not to know its email had not been seen by Ms Benfell, or that the email had ended up in her Spam folder.

23. While it might have followed up with those who did not respond (although another email could have met a similar fate) it was under no obligation to do so or to phone candidates as Ms Benfell suggested. The lift-out included profiles of 16 of the 35 candidates for the Lakes Council - the body to which Ms Benfell unsuccessfully sought election.

24. Ms Benfell was not excluded from the coverage because of any discrimination or diversity issues, and there is no suggestion she would have been omitted had she met the newspaper’s criteria. Rather it was an unfortunate outcome of her email set-up.

25. Nor are there any issues involving comment or fact, and Ms Benfell makes no specific arguments on that score.

26. The lift-out does not contain any advertising material, and the Council accepts Mr Inglis assurances editorial coverage was never conditional on buying advertising. However, he explicitly says he is not in a position to respond in relation to communications between the complainant and advertising staff. The Council would be concerned if coverage was linked to paid advertising by the newspaper’s advertising staff.

27. Ms Benfell no doubt feels that the coverage was not accurate, fair or balanced because it did not include a contribution from her and perhaps other candidates.

28. However, the Council believes the newspaper made a reasonable - and even-handed - attempt to contact all the candidates, including Ms Benfell. It was entitled to rely on the contact information provided by the chief returning officer.

29. The Council notes that in relation to paragraph 19 above, it is aware the newspaper did make amends to a candidate in the situation outlined by Mr Inglis.

Conclusion

30. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering tis complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.