PHILIP WARD AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 1046

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Philip Ward complained against Hawke’s Bay Today, on the basis that the newspaper had not effectively covered the consequences of a Commerce Commission decision to take proceedings to declare control over the Hawke’s Bay-based power lines company Unison, which it accused of over-charging. The complaints are not upheld.

Background
Unison is 100% owned by the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust on behalf of consumers connected to the company’s network in Hawke’s Bay.

In the wake of the Commerce Commission’s announcement, Mr Ward sought a meeting with the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today to “solicit the support” of the newspaper “to help me gather support to oppose the Commerce Commission”. He maintained that the Commission’s actions had reduced the value of Unison which would impact on the dividend payable to the community and on the capacity of the company to undertake necessary improvements. The editor replied that the newspaper was not in a position to support his cause, but would report it. Exchanges between Mr Ward and the editor then deteriorated.

Basis of Complaint
Mr Ward contended that the newspaper in its coverage of the issues arising from the Commission’s decision, failed to show fairness and balance, did not make sufficient distinction between comment and fact, and published headlines which did not properly convey the substance of the report; the Council is also asked to determine whether his letter to the editor on the issues was treated with fairness and balance.

The Newspaper’s Response
Mr Ward compiled a dossier of relevant articles and letters and the exchange of e-mails and correspondence between himself and the editor. An examination of this material does not support the allegation of a lack of fairness and balance. The matter of Unison v. the Commerce Commission is a developing story. The company applied for a judicial review of the Commerce Commission’s actions; in his letter to the Press Council of 2 December the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today advised that the High Court had “just this week cleared the way for the Commission to impose price controls on Unison”. In other words the implications of the move against the company were, at the time the complaint was submitted, unclear. Whether or not the story has been adequately covered could not accordingly be assessed.

Hawke’s Bay Today reported on the original announcement and its immediate significance on 12 September. This was followed by an extensive article on 14 October in which Ewing Robertson, a former chairman of the Power Consumers’ Trust, was given free rein to offer trenchant criticism of recent operations. The present trustees and Unison’s directors have, he claimed, “broken the law by hiking line charges, and mucked up what was once a functionally and financially sound enterprise”. This was followed on 18 October by a statement of the Company’s point of view, signed by the Chairman and Chief Executive of Unison, under the headline ‘Unison hasn’t broken laws’. Ann Dixon, member of the Power Consumers’ Trust was given an opportunity in a letter to the editor published on 25 October, to rebut some of Mr Robertson’s points. Mr Robertson, in turn was then given space for two more letters taking issue with arguments advanced respectively on behalf of Unison and the Trust. Finally the Chairman of the Trust was reported on 4 November in response to Mr Robertson’s criticisms of Unisom’s sponsorships programme.

It appears – although this is far from clear - that the burden of Mr Ward’s complaint is that the newspaper, through this coverage, failed to promote effective debate on behalf of consumers who are beneficiaries of the Trust. As a result few members of the public made submissions to the Commerce Commission during the hearing process in the wake of the announcement of intention to declare control over prices. Mr Ward suggested, inter alia, that the newspaper had an interest in promoting the views of a single critic (Mr Robertson) of the ways Unison and the Power Consumers’ Trust were being run, and, by extension, of failing to be more supportive of the wider community interest.

Conclusion
The newspaper did give prominence to the views of a stern critic of present operations at Unison and the Consumers Trust. That is not objectionable – especially in relation to a public utility and when the critic knows the business. The editor of a newspaper with a strong local base such as Hawke’s Bay Today has a responsibility to dig after the issues in pursuit of a community story of this kind. Balance was provided by printing the signed statement of the Chairman and Chief Executive of Unisom and the letter from Ann Dixon a member of the Consumers’ Trust plus a statement from the Chairman of the Trust responding to criticism of Unicom’s role as a sponsor of local events and facilities. The Council, accordingly does not find that the newspaper transgressed on grounds of fairness or balance.

On the other elements in Mr Ward’s complaint, the Council was unable to find any confusion of fact with comment and reiterates its position that it is the prerogative of editors to handle the Letters to the Editor section in their own way; abridgement of Mr Ward’s letter in the edition of 3 November was not inappropriate in the circumstances.. Nor could the Council take issue with the newspaper over the headlines employed.

The complaint accordingly is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Murray Williams and John Gardner.