PETER CHAPMAN AGAINST THE BLENHEIM SUN

Case Number: 2553

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Blenheim Sun

Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists
Bias
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

  • Peter Chapman complains of stories published in community newspaper The Blenheim Sun, and of the behaviour of a journalist which he believes is harassment.
  • The complainant was an unsuccessful candidate in the recent local government elections, and the content subject of the complaint was related to that.
  • The complaint is not upheld.
  • Background
  • Reporter Cathie Bell asked local government election candidates three questions. These were:
    • What prompted you to put your name forward?
    • What do you want to achieve in council and what skills do you think you bring to achieve this?
    • And since we’ve been mocked a bit nationally for this - do you have anything in your past that voters should know? That is, criminal charges, financial mishaps, fraud, trespass orders, harassment notices, expelled from Rotary, health problems - that sort of thing.
  • Importantly, the local government elections in Marlborough were occurring against the backdrop of a high profile political leak. A recording of a closed-door council conversation was passed on to a right-wing blogger and an internal investigation was launched to identify the leak.
  • In regard to the questions asked by The Sun of candidates, Mr Chapman did not answer the third question, seeing no sense or relevance in it.
  • The answers from candidates to the first two questions were published in The Sun on September 28.
  • That same day, the reporter and complainant met at The Sun’s office after she had sought answers to the third question.
  • At that meeting, the reporter put several other questions to Mr Chapman. Points discussed included the suggestion a trespass notice had been issued against him by a retailer, the possibility of the complainant being the source of the leak, whether he had copied emails to the same right-wing blogger in the past and why he was so unpopular in the community.
  • The complainant also provided the journalist with a Criminal Conviction Report, which showed he had no convictions.
  • A week later, on October 5, a story was published about the investigation into the leak. Angled on Mr Chapman denying any involvement, it also featured a reference to him attending a briefing by a right-wing activist apparently associated with the blogger who published the leaked recording.

The Complaint

  • Mr Chapman argues that questions asked of him, as a candidate, and of other candidates were improper. And they were designed to “elucidate information pertaining to my situation specifically.”
  • Additional approaches by the reporter to get the third question answered were harassment and designed to discredit Mr Chapman as a candidate.
  • Personalisation of election candidates is not fair and reasonable and, in Mr Chapman’s case, inhibited his chances of success.
  • After being pursued for an answer to Question 3, the complainant accepted an offer to speak with the reporter and they met atThe Sun’s office.
  • The reporter’s motive was made clear in the October 5 story, where “she alludes to my being the source of a leaked conversation between councillors…..”.
  • A phone call from The Sun’s publisher, Les Whiteside, on October 7 to explain the situation and defend the reporter added weight to the complainant’s assertion that the reporter went too far.
  • Mr Chapman also complained, in a letter to both the reporter and publisher, about matters left unpublished. They include the facts there was not a trespass notice issued against him and that he had no criminal convictions, as well as some other matters.
  • Beyond what was and wasn’t published, the complainant argues the reporter’s actions were biased.

The Response

  • The Sun’s response to the Press Council was handled directly by the reporter in question, Cathie Bell.
  • Ms Bell makes the point that Mr Chapman is a polarising figure in Marlborough.
  • Her questions of Mr Chapman and other candidates were the same, and followed careful consideration of how she’d cover the elections.
  • The third question was in response to criticism that candidates’ histories were not checked. And this is a job for the media.
  • Most candidates responded quickly, others were chased up. A ‘humorous’ story was planned around the answers to Question 3, based on the answers received from some other candidates.
  • Ms Bell had heard rumours of a trespass notice against Mr Chapman and put those to him. His denial was accepted and therefore not published.
  • As a reporter on Mr Chapman’s mailing list, she had seen his email connection to the right-wing blogger in the past so asked him if he was the leak.
  • At all times, her dealings with Mr Chapman were courteous and polite; being confrontational and intimidating was not her style.
  • Ms Bell’s reporting was fact-based and not based on rumour or innuendo. She took the earliest opportunity to put the questions to him and accepted his responses.
  • By the time stories ran in The Sun, the lion’s share of votes had been cast so the newspaper’s coverage did not make a difference to Mr Chapman’s candidacy.

The Decision

  • Mr Chapman’s suggestion that he was somehow targeted in a more direct way than other candidates in the local government election coverage are not borne out. All candidates were given the same set of questions. There was no bias shown.
  • The reporter’s additional efforts to get the answers from Mr Chapman were simply journalism at play. It is not only right and proper that journalists pursue answers from public figures, and those seeking public office, but it is a vital part of any democracy.
  • The questions were not unreasonable. Her approach to the candidates was appropriate and, for a community newspaper, would have givenThe Sun an opportunity to both inform and entertain its local audience.
  • The email connection between Mr Chapman, as a council candidate, and the blogger, who was at the centre of a news story, was grounds enough for Ms Bell to question him on a potential connection to the leak.
  • The Council finds little relevance in the matters left unpublished, including the Criminal Conviction Report.
  • Further, it is not improper for a reporter to put a rumour to a candidate standing for public office and then ignore it in their reporting when it is denied.
  • Lastly, there is a general tenor of Mr Chapman’s complaint that Ms Bell’s professional conduct and journalism fell short; that she was out to get him. There is no evidence of this.
  • As a whole, The Sun and Ms Bell should be commended for their coverage of the local government election in their area. The approach taken showed a strong editorial commitment to their local community.
  • The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Vernon Small.