ROB PATERSON AGAINST BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

Case Number: 2227

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Editorial Freedom
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Rob Paterson complained the Bay of Plenty Times failed to comply with Principle 1 of the Press Council Statement of Principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance in an editorial relating to the state of the hot pools situated at Mt Maunganui.
By a 9-2 decision, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
On 30 September 2011, the Bay of Plenty Times published an editorial headed Mount pools a city shame. The editorial referred to problems suffered by the pools, the failure of steps taken by Tauranga City Aquatics Limited (TCAL), a council-controlled organization, to rectify these problems and, significantly as far as Mr Paterson’s complaint is concerned, the opposition to the pools’ upgrade mounted by the Mount Hot Pools Protection Society.
Essentially, the newspaper argued the pools were a disgrace and not fitting of a city of Tauranga’s size and standing. Fault for this unhappy situation lay, according to Bay of Plenty Times, at least partly at the door of a local residents’ group including the named society.

The Complaint
Mr Paterson said the editorial, “far from expressing an opinion, is a cheap shot and a slur upon the credibility of the two groups involved…which is entirely without merit”. The reason the community groups opposed the resource consent application to upgrade the pools was because the application “did not meet environmental guidelines”.
The upgrade application had been heard by an independent commissioner. The commissioner had rejected the application. An appeal against the rejection by Tauranga City Aquatics Ltd was withdrawn.
Mr Paterson said the rejection of the application by the commissioner and the withdrawal of the appeal vindicated those opposing the upgrade application in the first place. It was wrong for Bay of Plenty Times to effectively cast aspersions on the opponents in the way it did even by way of an opinion piece.

The Response
The newspaper editor replied that it held to the view that “groups opposing the development of such an important amenity are still stalling progress in… ever growing [Tauranga City] regardless of the intentions of such opposition”.
He said “editorials are opinion columns and are part of a robust platform for debate and therefore do not require the same balance as a news article”.
The fact that the commissioner sided with the views of [Mr Paterson’s] group did not mean others cannot hold the view that groups seeking to block development of one of the city’s important facilities are in the newspaper’s view stalling city progress.
The requirement for accuracy, fairness and balance was not the issue in this case. Rather the newspaper had expressed a fair opinion on an “important public issue”. Principal 4 (comment and fact) prevailed, not Principle 1. The newspaper held firmly to the view it should not be constrained in freely expressing its opinion in a matter of public interest.

Discussion
The majority believes that on balance, none of the Press Council’s principles has been breached. The editorial in places is strongly expressed and some people may be offended by accusations that they “continue to stall progress.”
But the editorial cannot be said to be wrong or that its interpretation of the facts is unfair. In any event, editorials will often be considered unfair by parties who do not agree with them.
The re-development of the hot pools is obviously an ongoing issue at Mt Maunganui and a review of all of the information about the pools and why proposals have not yet been developed might well be more complex than the editorial indicates.
But within the confines of an editorial written at a specific time, there is no need to resurrect all the background again.
The newspaper is entitled to hold a view and do so unapologetically. Editorials do not have to present contrasting views.
The complainant could well have explained those different views had he taken up the newspaper’s offer of a letter to the editor.

Two members of the Council, dissenting from the majority, believe the description of the opposing residents’ actions is unfair. There is no reference in the editorial to the fact the redevelopment proposal was rejected by the hearing commissioner after he had followed due process. The editorial failed to mention that the proposal did not comply with the Resource Management Act or that the proposal had significant adverse environmental effects. The suggestion the residents’ group was acting irresponsibly and contrary to the interests of a growing dynamic city had no foundation.

Further the editorial failed to mention that the proposal was more than a redevelopment of the existing pools but was for an extended development.

Council members not upholding the complaint were Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Council members who would have upheld the complaint were Barry Paterson and Chris Darlow. Barry Paterson is not related to the complainant.