QUEENSTOWN LAKES DISTRICT COUNCIL AGAINST MOUNTAIN SCENE

Case Number: 1069

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2006

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Mountain Scene

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy

The Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) has complained about an article in Mountain Scene headed “Speak now or belt up for years,” published on May 11, 2006.
The Press Council has upheld the complaint on the grounds of inaccuracy (Principle 1) and failure to correct the error promptly (Principle 2).

Background
The article under the strap SCENESPEAK and the by-line FRANK MARVIN for the Mountain Scene News Team, covered the topic of the Council Community Plan. Frank Marvin is the former publisher of the newspaper. The SCENESPEAK piece referred to dollar sums relating to the rates, debt and capital spending and the submission time that ratepayers had to make their views on the plan known. It finished by urging readers to make their views known to the council.
Among other claims, the piece contained the sentence "Rates rising by five to 7.4 percent for the next decade – compound, by the way, which means Year 10 rates could be 204 per cent more than Year 1 rates.”
Following a phone call of complaint to the editor when the article appeared, the QLDC Communications Manager emailed the newspaper to say “this is a request from the Council for clarification of the article, as mentioned. Can you please let me know what you plan to do.”
Attached was a half-page statement headed “The 10-Year Council Community Plan – Clarification”. It said growth would offset rates increases and the true picture was that ratepayers would be looking at around a 1.1 percent increase per annum over 10 years for the targeted rate. The council was not able to follow the logic behind the 204 percent increase mentioned (it would be 65 percent without growth factored in). In relation to debt the statement said “it would have been fair to inform the community” about debt as a proportion of value of the capital programme, and about developer contributions.
The statement called the heading misleading, saying the process allowed for community input annually.
The editor emailed back that he had gone through the request with the relevant people at the newspaper and the paper stood by the editorial. It would not be printing QLDC’s response for the reasons outlined in an attached email exchange between the editor and the author Frank Marvin.
In that exchange, Frank Marvin defended his calculation of the rates increase, the debt level he quoted from the chief executive’s introduction and the headline based on his understanding of local body politics. The former publisher told the editor what he wrote was an editorial not news, that he thought it cheeky of the council to “ask for ‘spin space’ because they may not like the approach we’ve taken. They have their own Scuttlebutt [publication] for propaganda after all.” He found the council’s request did not fit the normal “right of reply” policy.
The editor agreed in reply, saying it would be like the Minister of Finance having right of reply to editorial opinion in the dailies.
The communications manager responded after seeing these emails that she saw no point in discussing it further with newspaper and that it was not spin, just a desire to have facts presented to the community. The complaint was then lodged with the Press Council.

Complaint
In the complaint, the communications manager said as a result of the article, an angry and upset ratepayer had phoned to say she would have to leave the district because of the quoted 204 percent rate increase. The exchange with the newspaper followed.
The QLDC considered the article unbalanced and misleading, especially in a time when submissions were being made on the plan. No Mountain Scene staff had contacted the council for information about the finances in Council Community Plan.
The communications manager disputed the total rates increase calculated which was baffling and confusing, and said the headline and article were clearly contrary to a process that allowed for annual input. The terms “spin space" and "propaganda" were unreasonable and offensive, and the use of a nickname in the emails derogatory and insulting.
Mountain Scene, in a wordy 68-page defence with appendixes, acknowledged the 204 percent figure as an error, but stood by everything else published.
Points made were that SCENESPEAK was an editorial, a point of view, and therefore not a balanced news piece, and that the newspaper would not publish verbatim the clarification which the editor understood was the council’s requirement. He told the Press Council he would have been happy to entertain a Letter to the Editor or a Your Word column up to 350 words, used as a response for readers unhappy with a published story. Examples of corrections and clarifications made by the paper in the past were attached.
The newspaper defended its interpretations of the growth factor in rates and whether plans put in place by one council could be changed by newly elected council members, given the cycle of the review process.

Conclusion
This is a complaint of two halves, about what was in the editorial and then about the exchanges between complainant and newspaper. It may well have been solved simply if the problem had not been aggravated by the failure of both sides to use clear, direct communication with each other.
In the first part, the SCENESPEAK editorial, fairly evidently an editorial opinion on the Opinion page, was delivered in the feisty style which readers of Mountain Scene are familiar with. It appears to be a classic council-budget-and-rates-rise opinion piece, echoing the dramatic climate which prevails around the country when ratepayers’ burdens are discussed. An upset ratepayer appears to have been the catalyst for the QLDC asking for “clarification” of the editorial.
At this point, if the editor had double-checked whether the council really wanted the whole of the “clarification” run verbatim, or some form of edited wording, and if the council had asked clearly for a correction of the incorrect figure, the right to respond or even a Your Word column, the issue may have been sorted out.
The Press Council complaint was mounted, and the newspaper came to the conclusion there was an error. A small correction appeared at the end of SCENESPEAK in the June 29 issue, seven weeks after the original article (Mountain Scene is a weekly newspaper) but only after the Press Council complaints process had begun. In upholding a complaint about an editorial (Case 887) the Press Council acknowledged that “opinion may be freely expressed in the editorial column but any information given as a fact should be accurate.” While a correction will often satisfy both complainants and the Press Council that an inaccuracy has been put right, in this instance there appeared to be little initial will for the paper to do this. The error was crucial in underpinning the tone and concern voiced in the editorial, which may have been less strident with rates figures that were less breathtaking.
While the communications manager complained about the blunt wording in the newspaper in-house emails, forwarded to the QLDC apparently in the interests of transparency, that is not a matter for the Press Council’s to deal with under its principles. A newspaper with Mountain Scene’s forthright style and a local council prepared to stand up for itself need to deal with this matter themselves in future, as papers made available to the Press Council show an occasional history of testy exchanges between them.

Finding
In the matter of the editorial and the substance of the principal complaint, the Press Council upholds the complaint on the grounds of inaccuracy of the rate increase calculation (Principle 1) and failure to correct the error promptly (Principle 2).


Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.