PENNY GRIFFITH AGAINST WAIMEA WEEKLY

Case Number: 2047

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waimea Weekly

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Penny Griffith about an article published in the Waimea Weekly newspaper on 2 July 2008.

Background
Penny Griffith, an opponent of a plan by the Tasman District Council to contribute funds towards a performing arts centre in Richmond, complained to the Press Council that a newspaper article headlined: Centre plan was “deal of the century”, described her as one of “a group of terrorists”.

The article said Grace Church, builders of the centre, had withdrawn its request for funding because of “negativity” surrounding the project by a small group of ratepayers. Quoting disappointed supporters of the plan, the article said the loss of Council involvement was “a lost opportunity and a railroading of the issue by ‘a group of terrorists’” that had set Richmond back in its hopes for a quality performing arts centre.

The Complaint
Ms Griffith said the article contravened the Press Council’s Principle 6, requiring newspapers to make a proper distinction between reporting facts, opinions and comment.

She said the article was critical of people who had spoken out through letters and at meetings against the funding proposal. Many of the quotations in the article were unattributed.

One comment, attributed to Mayor Richard Kempthorne, referred to a group of “roughly six people” who had “continually written letters to the Nelson Mail newspaper and questioned the spending at every opportunity, including at the Richmond Community Forum and Council meetings”. By implication, these were the people who had caused the church to withdraw its funding request.

Ms Griffith said an unattributed quote described those responsible for “railroading” the donation as “a group of terrorists”.

She said it was inappropriate for a community newspaper to publish demeaning remarks about people exercising their democratic right to debate an issue.

She objected to the newspaper referring to any and all of those who spoke out as “terrorists”. In the heightened international security following the September 11 2001 attack on the United States, such accusations could create unnecessary difficulties for people.

Ms Griffith said she could easily be identified as one of the main letter writers, speakers and formal submitters against the proposed funding. Use of the word “terrorist” to describe her was ‘irresponsible, inappropriate, demeaning and potentially damaging to my security status and ability to travel freely”.

In a letter to the newspaper, she requested a withdrawal of the comment and a front-page apology. Her letter was published as a letter to the editor, without comment on 16 July 2008. In view of the editor’s comment in response to a letter from another complainant on 9 July that there would be no apology, she concluded that her own request had not been satisfied.

The Newspaper’s Response
This is one of two complaints about the same article from people who claim they have been labelled as terrorists. The newspaper’s editor has written one response to cover both complaints.

The editor said the newspaper did not print Ms Grifitth’s name in association with the terrorist comment, nor did it hint that she or the other complainant were involved at all. Ms Griffith and the other complainant named themselves in letters to the editor objecting to the article.

He said the terrorist comment was made after a meeting of local citizens on both sides of the argument by a person “heavily involved in the situation and a person of very high standing”.

The editor said Grace Church had withdrawn its request for Council funding because of “intense negativity and intimidation”. The “terrorist” comment accurately described the frustration of one-half of those at the meeting.

Both sides of the argument had been given an opportunity to comment before the article went to print, with only one person from the group of opponents willing to go on the record.

Discussion
This is a local issue that has provoked strong feelings and strong language on both sides. Both sides agree that negative comments about the Tasman District Council’s plan to contribute funds to the building of the performing arts centre caused the church to withdraw its application for funds.

A local newspaper has a duty to report issues of this kind, and central to this story was why the church pulled out of the funding arrangement. It was legitimate for the newspaper to report the reaction of the losers – in their words. The “group of terrorists” comment was attributed to unnamed disappointed supporters of the funding idea.

The article did not name any of so-called “group of terrorists”, but it is accepted that people following the issue in newspaper reports or letters to the editor columns might have been able to suggest names of group members. Ms Griffiths said in response to the newspaper’s claim that she had identified herself, that she had been alerted to the article by several people who had associated her with the “terrorist” label.

Nevertheless, the “group of terrorists” comment is hyperbole. It is strong language but consistent with the tone of other exchanges in this argument. The context is a row over local body funding; no-one reading the article is encouraged to interpret the comment in any other light. The first paragraph of the story not only contains the contentious statement, it provides the context – “a group of terrorists has set Richmond back in its hopes for a performing arts centre”.

The Council did not accept that the use of the phrase “group of terrorists” would jeopardise overseas travel.

Conclusion
The Press Council believes it is duty of newspapers to encourage debate and recognises that freedom of speech can be raw. Among the Council’s guiding principles, there is none more important than freedom of expression. It does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Lynn Scott and Alan Samson

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.