Case Number: 923

Council Meeting: MAY 2003

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

This is a complaint by Philip Davidson against an article published in the Wairarapa Times-Age on February 10 2003 and the subsequent publishing of a letter by Mr Davidson on February 28.

The article reported that a tree was to be felled the following day but local residents wanted to save it. It was reported that the property on which the tree stood had been purchased by out-of-towners who use the house infrequently. The locals interviewed wished to retain the tree because of its age and beauty.

The owner of the property, Mr Davidson, wrote to the newspaper to complain about the article. The letter was addressed to the editor and was published as a Letter to the Editor

Mr Davidson complains that the article was inaccurate, emotive, misleading, unbalanced and an invasion of his privacy. While the article states the house was moved onto the property in October, this in fact occurred in February 2002. While the article reports a neighbour as saying none of the other street residents knew the property owners in fact Mr Davidson and his partner were in contact with three neighbours. Mr Davidson complains the term out-of-towner was emotive and irrelevant to the story.

Mr Davidson complains that the article misleads by reporting Mrs Stokes as saying no-one knew why the tree was to be felled, when neighbours had asked for it to be felled. He also objects to Mrs Stokes’ comment that the tree is a landmark with history because it does not appear as an historic tree in the local body District Plan.

Mr Davidson complains that the reporter did not contact him for comment before the story appeared and that his privacy was breached by publishing the address of the property and that it was often unoccupied.

Finally Mr Davidson complained that his letter to the editor was not intended for publication and publishing it compounded damage suffered because the information he did not want published was published again.

In response the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age accepts that there were some factual errors but maintains they were not materially relevant. The information in the article was provided by the locals who approached the newspaper about the felling of the tree.
The editor states that the issue was one of public interest and in the limited time available the reporter could not ascertain the owner.

The editor accepts he made an error of judgment by publishing Mr Davidson’s letter of complaint and as a result has revised the newspaper’s procedure for handling letters. He notes that it was not marked “not for publication”. He also notes that it was published essentially unchanged and without comment even though it was strongly critical of the paper. Nevertheless, publishing the letter gave Mr Davidson an opportunity to clear up the factual discrepancies in a timely fashion.

In most circumstances it is good journalistic practice to seek comment from both sides of an issue such as this. The time constraints, given the tree was to be felled the following day, may have been compelling. The Council notes that more information from the editor about steps taken by the reporter to ascertain the identity of the owner would have been useful. This part of the complaint is upheld because high journalistic standards require every effort to be made to gather comments from both sides of a story such as this.

The publishing of the information that the house was usually empty was pertinent to the story and accurately represented the facts. The owner acknowledged that this would be obvious to people in the immediate vicinity. The Council does not find that the owner’s rights to privacy have been substantially breached.

It is of concern to the Council that a letter of complaint addressed to the editor was published when the writer did not want it published. In this case there was no warning not to publish the letter. The editor has taken steps to make sure this situation does not happen again. The Council does not uphold this part of the complaint.

The complaint is part-upheld.