RON CAMPBELL AGAINST WHAKATANE BEACON

Case Number: 2215

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Whakatane Beacon

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Ron Campbell, of Kawerau, complained to the New Zealand Press Council that a report in the Whakatane Beacon relating to a fatal accident involving an 11-year-old girl in a truck he was driving was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced.
The complaint is upheld on lack of balance.



Background
Under the heading, Slow payment prolongs pain, and an overline saying, Driver ‘spitting in Sam’s face’ – mother, the Beacon reported on August 16, 2011, that the girl’s family feared it could be years “before they get the closure they need” over the youngster’s death.
The story recorded how the girl was killed after falling from the cab of a moving truck in May 2010 and how Mr Campbell had been convicted of careless driving causing death.
His sentence included paying emotional harm reparation of $5000 to the family but the Beacon said it understood that until recently, no reparation had been paid and a warrant had been issued for seizure of property. A voluntary payment of $50 had been made – “enough to keep the bailiff at bay” – and another $50 deducted from his bank account.
The mother of the girl was quoted as saying she had since been receiving $15 a week, and it would take years before the reparation was paid at such a rate, and said it felt like Mr Campbell was “spitting in Sam’s face” through an apparent reluctance to pay.
The article went on to detail the background to the court case and how the girl had suffered fatal head injuries after falling through an unsecured door with a faulty locking mechanism in a bread delivery truck Mr Campbell was driving as he did his rounds early in the morning. Five children had slept overnight in the sleeping compartment in the truck.
Mr Campbell was not approached for comment before publication.



The Complaint
In a letter dated August 22, Mr Campbell complained to the editor that the article was biased, unbalanced and inaccurate and that he should have been approached for a response before publication.
In the letter, he said he had spoken to the reporter who had told him she had tried to contact him but could not do so. He found this “amazing” in that he was well known in Kawerau and people would have known where he was likely to be.
Inaccuracies included implying he was insensitive and delayed making reparation payments. He had followed legal advice on what to do about the payments and, when some time had elapsed, he started making payments of $15 a week because that was all he could afford at the time after losing his driver’s licence.
Further, he had not received court documents sent to the wrong address and that was why the seizure notice was issued. The matter had been resolved when he discussed it with the bailiff.
Mr Campbell told the editor he very much regretted the accident and was “very remorseful” about what had occurred. The comment about spitting in Sam’s face was abhorrent to him, “and very far from the truth.”
“I believe that your reporter has presented a very distorted story . . . Anyone not knowing me would think me a monster in view of that story. Thankfully, I am well known in Kawerau and surrounds, and I have received a lot of support since your inaccurate article appeared,” Mr Campbell said.
Despite various communications with the reporter and editor, no resolution was found and Mr Campbell complained to the Press Council.



Editor’s Response
The editor, Mark Longley, said the newspaper had been approached by the mother who was frustrated that she had not received any reparation. The reporter met the mother three times and by the third meeting, reparation money had started to arrive but at a minimum rate she was not happy with.
The newspaper established from the Ministry of Justice that no money had been paid before then and that a seizure order had been issued.
The editor said that in court cases such as this, the newspaper did not tend to approach defendants as the facts were correct. He acknowledged the reporter might have been a little too emotionally involved.
He had contacted Mr Campbell after he received his letter and told him he was happy to publish parts of the letter, but not the portion on reparation arrangements because he felt that section was a series of excuses and it didn’t tally with comments from the Ministry of Justice.
He was happy for Mr Campbell to address the other issues, either through another letter or he would edit the existing one. Mr Campbell had become abusive and told him to forget about it.
The editor said: “This was an unusual story for us because it was essentially reporting on a court case where we don’t speak to the defendant. However, it did go beyond that and I felt Mr Campbell was entitled to reply to a couple of points and so offered the chance for him to write another letter. He declined. I do not feel we should be giving him the chance to make excuses as to why the reparation was not paid.”



Discussion
In their submissions to the Press Council, Mr Campbell and the editor disagree on what was said during their conversation about whether parts of the letter (but not all) could be published. Mr Campbell also said he did not become abusive.
The Press Council cannot make judgement on such matters and for this adjudication, it is not necessary.
The editor argues this was essentially a court story. In the Press Council’s view, it was a follow-up to a court story and therefore it was not bound by the usual rules of reporting only what was said and done in court.
The mother made some serious allegations against Mr Campbell and he deserved the right of reply at the time of publication to provide balance. While the reporter said she tried to contact Mr Campbell before publication, she failed to do so and the report was therefore unbalanced.
The newspaper also disputed Mr Campbell’s version of making reparation payments but in fairness, he did deserve the right to make an explanation to an issue the newspaper had raised in a very public way. This did not happen.
The editor’s admission that the reporter might have got too close to the story indicates more impartial judgement was required, and the story would have been the better for including both sides of the story together.



Decision
The complaint is upheld on lack of balance. Mr Campbell was entitled to have the allegations against him put to him for comment.



Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.