Case Number: 816

Council Meeting: February 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Northland Age

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against the Northland Age concerning an article about problems with the Hokianga Harbour ferry service. The article, published on November 23, 2000, covered a written complaint lodged with the Far North District Council by council member Cr Joe Carr about incidents on the ferry, and a response to the council by the company operating the ferry, Impact Services.

Cr Carr's complaint, as reported by the newspaper, mainly focussed on several cases of ferries doing 'wheelies' , or 360-degree turns, while making special late-night sailings to bring passengers back from social events across the harbour. In the course of describing these incidents Cr Carr commented that on such trips "passengers are often in various stages of alcohol and/or cannabis
intoxication" and so if someone should be flung into the water there was little likelihood of survival.

Cr Carr also noted in his letter to the council that he had received "strong unsubstantiated expressions of concern . . . that most, if not all, of the ferry staff are heavy cannabis users." The councillor said he was unable to comment on these allegations, but suggested it would be appropriate to ensure ferry staff were subjected to appropriate drug testing to safeguard the public and "protect the staff from any unfair inferences of impropriety."

The company's response to the council, also reported by the Northland Age, confirmed that incidents involving 'wheelies' had occurred and said staff had been instructed that this practice was to cease forthwith. The company had reported the incidents to the Maritime Safety Authority and asked for an independent audit of its operations by Survey Nelson.

The company further said that it was looking into the possibility of amending employees' contracts to allow for random drug testing.

Mr Philip Evans, of Kohukohu, complained to the paper, and subsequently to the Press Council, about the publication of these "outrageous claims of illegal behaviour" against ferry passengers and ferry staff. It was appalling that a councillor should make such serious allegations when they were "by his own admission unsubstantiated" and even more astonishing that a newspaper should publish them on its front page. To make matters worse, he said, his own inquiries had revealed that the newspaper had not attempted to contact either the company or the ferry staff for a response.

The editor said the article had made it quite clear that Cr Carr acknowledged that he was repeating allegations he was unable to substantiate. The paper had published those allegations because the ferry company, far from denying them, had taken steps which indicated it felt they had some validity. Because the paper had a copy not only of Mr Carr's complaint but also the company's
response, which treated that complaint seriously and outlined the steps it was taking as a result, there was no need for it to seek any further reaction.

The Press Council felt it would have been preferable for the Northland Age to have contacted Impact Services directly to see if it wished to expand on its formal response to the allegations by Cr Carr, particularly the claim that most ferry staff were heavy cannabis users, in view of their serious nature. That said, having obtained the formal documentation outlining both the complaints and the company's response, it was not unreasonable for the paper to base its article on that material. That decision by the paper was validated to an extent by the fact that the company indicated that the points raised by Cr Carr deserved to be taken seriously and that since the article appeared neither the company nor its staff had contacted the paper to register any complaint.

The Council also noted that the allegations Mr Evans objected to were not headlined but reported well down the article in the context in which Cr Carr made them. While the article was somewhat confusing to read, it was reasonably clear that the claims about cannabis use by ferry staff were acknowledged to be unsubstantiated and that the councillor's suggestion of drug testing was as much as anything else designed to protect staff from unfair claims.

The issue of ferry safety was clearly one of significance to the Hokianga community and the Northland Age had a responsibility to air it. The Council felt that given its limited resources the paper did an acceptable job in this case. The complaint was not upheld.