PENINSULA GOLF CLUB AGANST THE AUCKLANDER

Case Number: 2241

Council Meeting: MARCH 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Aucklander

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

A complaint by Patrick Kennelly, Chairman of the Board of the Peninsula Golf Club, against The Aucklander was not upheld, by a majority. Mr Kennelly had complained that an article breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, and of comment and fact.

Background
On February 2 2012 The Aucklander published an article headed “Teed off over fairway”. It reported that the Peninsula Golf Course might soon be converted into ‘the site of little boxes on the hillside’ if plans to develop 500 houses on the site went ahead.
The paper had interviewed the CEO of the Hibiscus Hospice, built in 2008, and in their article stated that this was on land purchased from the Golf Club in 2004. The CEO was concerned that such a development would impact negatively on terminally ill people, as well as adding to existing traffic congestion, and that the sights and sounds of construction would ‘destroy the hospice’s peaceful environment’. She stated that the Hospice had not known of plans to sell the course, “and that’s disappointing. It would have been a factor in our decision to buy if we had known”.
A Hibiscus and Bays Local Board member was also cited as being concerned that strong opposition by his board had not been taken into consideration by the Auckland Council’s regional development and operations committee, who have accepted the re-zoning change for notification.
Auckland Council did not respond to requests for information, and the article does not include any information from the Golf Club itself.
Patrick Kennelly wrote to The Aucklander’s editor on 5 February claiming that the article published was defamatory of the Club; that the CEO’s quoted comment about non-disclosure was completely untrue, and that the journalist had made no attempt to contact the Club for a response. The Club had been actively involved in supporting the Hospice over the years, and was very disappointed with the article.
The editor responded promptly, saying she would check with her journalist, and meanwhile had added some of his comments to the online version, giving Mr Kennelly’s opinion of the CEO’s comments.
Mr Kennelly replied that the sale of land to the Hospice had started in mid 2002, was signed off in late 2002 with delayed terms to suit Hospice, and was not finalised until 2004. Full payment was not made until May 2005. He argued that, in not seeking the Club’s input on the article and in publishing, without checking their correctness, the incorrect statements of the CEO (such as that the land was bought in 2004) fell far short of standards of fairness and accuracy, and a complaint to the Press Council would follow. Suggestions that the Club had acted dishonestly were particularly offensive when the Club had worked so hard to support the Hospice.
The editor sent the draft of a follow-up apology, and offered to point readers to Mr Kennelly’s full letter of complaint online if he wished. Mr Kennelly responded with additional wording and a demand that the apology needed to be published on the front page, as the article had been. In its printed apology the paper issued an ‘unreserved apology’ to the Club for any implication that it had acted dishonestly, and acknowledged that comment from the Club should have been included in the article. This was run on 9 February, the next printed version of the paper.

The Complaint
Mr Kennelly sent a formal complaint to the Press Council on 14 February. It covered the details laid out above, and alleged breaches of the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; and of comment and fact. Mr Kennelly also signed a waiver against any legal action against the paper or journalist.

The Newspaper’s Response
In her response, the editor acknowledged shortcomings in the article, but suggested that the article did not, per se, allege that the Club had acted dishonestly. Regardless, the paper had published an amendment online to include the complainant’s comments and to correct the error regarding the land being sold in 2004, when it was 2002. The paper had dealt with the complaint rapidly, and doubted that the story has caused damage to the Club’s reputation. The Aucklander was not ‘creating or stirring’ the story, but reporting on a matter of great interest to local people. The editor reiterated that she had twice offered Mr Kennelly an opportunity to have his full complaint printed, both in print and online, but he had not responded. The paper had printed an apology swiftly.

Further Comment from the Complainant
Mr Kennelly replied, reiterating his previous complaints. Despite having signed a waiver with regard to the publication of the article, his group still felt that the Club had been defamed. He felt that the story as written was one-sided and designed to stir the community’s interest in supporting the hospice’s opposition to the Plan Change Application. He concluded that the Press Council should draw to the journalist’s attention that truth and accuracy are important and that both sides should be considered.

Conclusion
The Council agrees entirely with Mr Kennelly that the published article was unbalanced and contained material inaccuracies. The paper should have sought the Club’s perspective in writing its article. The question is whether the newspaper’s subsequent actions were sufficiently remedial. The paper has already acknowledged its errors; it ‘unreservedly apologises’ to club members as it did not intend to portray the Club as being dishonest; and it corrected the online version, and published a letter on the matters raised the next time the paper was published in print.
While viewing the imbalance and inaccuracy in the article seriously, the Council believes that the paper’s action, taken promptly and with due concern for the Golf Club’s position, was sufficient to avert the uphold decision that would otherwise have resulted.

On this basis the complaint is not upheld by the majority of the Council.

Dissent
Barry Paterson did not support the decision as, in his view, the correction was inadequate. The comment attributed to the Chief Executive of the hospice inferred that the Golf Club sold land to the hospice knowing that it intended to sell the balance of the golf course for housing purposes and did not disclose such plans to the hospice. This was a false statement about the Golf Club to its discredit. The correction covered this point in a general way and did not identify the statement on which the apology was based. Further a correction, to be effective in the circumstances of this case, needed to be given reasonable prominence. The original article was a full page article and to blunt the effect of the inference the apology should have been given equal prominence and not placed at the end of an article headed “Your feedback: buses, bridges, berms and golf”.

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

Chris Darlow and John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.