PETER CROFT AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2524

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

Overview

Peter Croft complains that a report in The Press was inaccurate when it stated that 60 percent of Christchurch’s winter air pollution was caused by smoky chimneys and there were 25,000 homes with wood-burners in the city. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

The day the report appeared Mr Croft wrote to the newspaper challenging its figures but the letter was not published. It had pointed out that just over a year earlierThe Press had obtained figures from the Regional Council, Environment Canterbury, which stated that in 2014 domestic air pollution had been 49 percent of the total and that the number of log burners was 20,675.

Two weeks later Mr Croft wrote again to the paper noting his letter had not been published and asking ifThe Press intended to correct information that he believed was designed to mislead the public. Seven days after that,The Press printed a letter headed, “Clearing the air”. It was signed by a Regional Council employee and claimed domestic air pollution was 67 percent of the total. That figure, said Mr Croft in another letter to the editor, related to 1999 and by publishing incorrect figures the Regional Council was grossly overstating pollution from domestic fires.

He asked that The Press either publish his letter, print a correction or produce an article presenting the true figures. When none of those had been done after 13 working days he complained to the Press Council.

Besides the issue of air pollution figures and the number of log burners in Christchurch, he complains thatThe Press put the number of high pollution nights last winter at eight but this number included two non-winter readings that were caused by salt or dust in the air.

The Response

Kamala Hayman, Fairfax media Deputy Editor, Canterbury, Otago, says the article relied on information provided by Environment Canterbury (ECan) which is the statutory body charged with monitoring and controlling air pollution in Canterbury. The newspaper considers ECan to be a credible source. The figures Mr Croft prefers come from an earlier report by ECan.The Press publishes the latest figures available.

Ms Hayman said The Press cannot publish corrections to figures provided by official bodies based on information provided by readers. It had replied to Mr Croft's’ letters and explained that it would continue to investigate the city’s air pollution through the winter.

The Complainant’s Further Response

Mr Croft said he was not suggesting The Press should accept the word of readers over official figures provided by ECan but merely pointing out that last yearThe Press had sufficient concern to apply for the figures under the Official Information Act. On that occasion they did obtain the correct figure but the latest article, written by a different journalist does not use the updated figure the newspaper received in 2015.

The deputy editor, in an unsolicited further response, said the journalist who obtained the 2015 figure no longer works for Fairfax.

The Decision

It should be noted that Mr Croft’s complaint does not include the unpublished letters. He accepts the newspaper was exercising its prerogative not to publish them. The Council also notes that Ms Hayman had taken the trouble to send him a personal reply to the letters.

His complaint is solely about the accuracy of the article but he has provided the Council with nothing to support his conviction that the figures published by the newspaper were wrong. The newspaper says it used the latest figures available from Environment Canterbury and the Council agrees it was entitled to rely on them.

The fact that the newspaper obtained a different figure a year earlier does not seem surprising. It is reasonable to suppose air pollution from domestic fires fluctuates from year to year, as would the number of household wood-burning fires in a city the size of Christchurch.

The Council notes that Mr Croft advised that two of the high pollution nights occurred in Summer and were as a result of dust or sea spray.The editor did not address this point, but it is to be hoped that the fact that high pollution nights need not necessarily relate to Winter smoke has been noted. This is not a material inaccuracy and is not worthy of an uphold decision.

Mr Croft clearly distrusts the Regional Council and gives examples, unrelated to this complaint, where their use of inaccurate figures has seen them found-against by the Advertising Standards Authority, and of their apology over the use of misleading photos to support their claim of environmental damage by farmers.

Perhaps the reporter who in 2015 applied for figures under the Official Information Act shared that distrust. But those figures, though obtained in 2015, were for the previous year, 2014. It is not clear why the complainant prefers figures that are two years out of date.

The Council has no grounds to find the published material inaccurate.The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.