PETER ATTWOOLL AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 1094

Council Meeting: JUNE 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy
Misleading

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Peter Attwooll against the Otago Daily Times over the content of a footnote added to a letter to the editor.

Background
On April 4 the Otago Daily Times published a letter penned by Mr Attwooll thanking weekly newspaper the Sunday Star Times for (in its April 1 edition) for being the first to break the story “Conflict of interest hangs over stadium”, noting that land owned by Otago Community Trust chairman John Farry, was in the path of the city’s proposed new stadium. The footnote read: “It was first reported in the ODT on March 2, 2007.-Ed.”

The Complaint
Mr Attwooll has complained that the ODT’s claim of precedence is a misrepresentation because the paper’s earlier story had only revealed a conflict of interest, “not the specific nature of that conflict of interest”.

“I want the ODT to take responsibility for misrepresenting a fact, and myself, by inserting a correction to the To the Point section of Letters to the Editor.”

Mr Attwooll supplied with his correspondence analysis and opinion of the ODT’s performance in covering the stadium debate – he calls the newspaper’s coverage unbalanced and inadequate - but this is offered as an aside to the specifics of the charge of misrepresentation.

The Newspaper’s Response
In response, ODT editor Murray Kirkness - not the editor at the time the footnote was added - defends the addition as accurate.

“The Sunday Star Times report…was published on April 1, 2007. In an editor’s note – not a correction – following Mr Attwooll’s letter, it was pointed out the ODT first reported Mr Farry had declared a conflict of interest about the issue in an article on March 2, 2007…we do not believe the editor’s note misrepresented any facts.”

Mr Kirkness goes on to say that at the time of the ODT’s first reporting, the specific nature of the conflict was not available, but his paper had been the first newspaper to disclose the fact. “In our view, reporting that a conflict of interest existed was sufficient for any reasonable person to assume Mr Farry had some financial interest in the matter.”

He rejects any claim of partisan news reporting, by way of reference to a selection of articles provided to the Council, including opinion pieces and letters, that he says are variously for and against the stadium.

Conclusion
A great deal of Mr Attwooll’s correspondence appears to be a personal judgment of the performance of the ODT in covering Dunedin’s proposed new stadium. It is clear the issue is a big one for the city’s residents, and is certainly one that has generated a great deal of interest and emotion.

As a reader, Mr Attwooll is perfectly at liberty to make judgments about the newspaper’s coverage, and to make them publicly, including by offering them for publication in letters to the ODT. Mr Kirkness in his correspondence has expressed an apparent willingness to publish letters on the subject from him.

But though his concerns appear to be wide-ranging, the nub of Mr Attwooll’s complaint to the Press Council is not the standard of coverage but the accuracy of the footnote appended to his letter of April 4. The nature of the earlier article claimed by the ODT might not have satisfied him but such an omission does not render the footnote inaccurate.

The Press Council requires publications to not “deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission”. While it might have been more accurate for the newspaper to have written, “The ODT first reported the conflict of interest on March 2 but at that time did not know the nature of the conflict”, the Council does not find there to have been a deliberate misrepresentation in this case.

Some members noted that in failing to follow up on the matter of the Otago Community Chairman’s “conflict of interest” the ODT seemed to have missed the opportunity of running an interesting story.

Other issues raised by Mr Attwooll, notably what he sees as the lack of rigour of the ODT’s investigation, might be the subject of valid comment and concern, but they are not for the Council to rule on.

The complaint is not upheld.

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