Case Number: 764

Council Meeting: December 1999

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Right of Reply

The Rt Hon Winston Peters, the Member of Parliament for Tauranga and leader of the New Zealand First party, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about an article in North & South magazine. The article "Terrific Tauranga" was the cover story of the April 1999 issue. The complaint was part upheld

Before proceeding to outline the assessment of the complaint and the reasons for the decision, the Press Council needs to comment on the procedure leading to the acceptance of this complaint. In 1997, the Council embarked on a review of its own mandate to ensure it was serving the public properly. Part of that review showed that the Press Council should have jurisdiction over magazines to fulfil its obligations to the public, and to keep it in line with other similar bodies operating elsewhere in the world.

Discussions with magazine publishers took place and two of the three major publishers of magazines in New Zealand accepted the jurisdiction of the Press Council. The third, Australian Consolidated Press, ACP, did not. ACP publishes North & South.

ACP is an Australian-based publishing company and there its publications do come under the jurisdiction of the Australian Press Council. This highlights the anomalous position which the company has chosen to adopt towards New Zealand Press Council jurisdiction and to the option of recourse to the Council, which should be available to its New Zealand readers.

Details of the complaint were supplied to the editor of North & South, but other than the refusal to accept jurisdiction, there has not been a response.

Self-regulation of newspapers and magazines in New Zealand requires that the regulator ensures, as far as possible, that the public are not deprived of the right to complain about a publication. Therefore, despite the current attitude and reluctance of ACP to participate in the Press Council complaints procedure, the Council has proceeded to adjudicate, applying its established Principles and standards.

The article by North & South deputy editor Jenny Chamberlain delivers what the headline promises -- Terrific Tauranga. In a 4000-word plus feature, this overwhelmingly positive picture of the Bay of Plenty city is chock full of words like "bustling", "dynamic", "alive", and "vibrancy", which are supported by the panels "Laidback Lifestyle", Retirement Heaven", "A Bit of Europe" and "Twelve Tauranga Treats". This is essentially a local story focused on Tauranga's growth, and dealing with issues such as local body amalgamation, roading, housing development, regional industry and port growth in amongst the glowing profiles of local lifestyles of the young, the old, the retired, and the busy. There is a glance at unemployment but no dark clouds are allowed to disturb the sunny picture for too long.

The article has the usual magazine large-type introduction which underlines the tone and subject of the article and concludes with the line "And that's with or without (mostly without) Winston Peters." This is the first aspect of the article which Mr Peters complains of. Towards the end of the lengthy feature, the writer also approaches political candidates who will be standing against Mr Peters in the Tauranga electorate. They seem more concerned about their own chances than about Mr Peters, although Katherine O'Regan, likely to be his most vigorous opponent again, discounts the sitting member's support in a typically colourful political aside by referring to "hem-touchers" and old ladies. The feature writer admires a succinct summary of Tauranga's status from Katherine O'Regan and expresses the opinion that it would be hard to imagine Mr Peters giving the same, presumably because Mrs O'Regan's time is spent wholly on local political matters.

The main thrust of Mr Peters' complaint was that the article denigrated his contribution to the area, suggested that his representation had been irrelevant to its growth, mocked his supporters with reference to "hem-touchers" and "old ladies" and implied that he did not genuinely care about the city where his family had lived for the past 15 years. His letter contained strong expressions such as "intentional malice", "perceived bias", "unethical and unfair" and "unprofessional journalism".

The article is much milder than Mr Peters suggests. From the outset, as local demography, geography and climate come together to sum up the magnetic appeal of the region and provide the basis for the article, the wider political context is simply not relevant to the magazine's point of view -- people are enjoying the booming growth of Tauranga as a local success. For example, the port is discussed as the great economic engine which owed much early on to the vision and energy of the then mayor Bob Owens. The fact 4000 words intervene between the perceived political bias of the introduction and the conclusion is not a device -- the business at hand is Tauranga. There is a modest aside on the region's political makeup: "Grey power, a force you can't ignore in Tauranga, has provided local MP Winston Peters with his central core of loyal voters. They may yet revive his flagging fortunes and return him for the a seventh term following the coming election." This is not the stuff of an antagonistic article.

That area of complaint is, therefore, not upheld.

Mr Peters also complained that the magazine failed to give him the opportunity to comment on either the comments of his political opponents or the author's own observations on his performance. In this area he is on stronger ground. It is indeed strange that the author was able to contact the National, Labour and Act candidates for Tauranga but could not take the time to seek the views of the long-serving local MP. That is the more so since Mr Peters' role does dominate the final segment of the article and contains several criticisms of his stewardship.

While a magazine feature is not a news story and editors can adopt any tone from advocacy through to polemic, they run the risk of imbalance that is unacceptable from not allowing all parties to be represented. The magazine may have believed that risk seemed remote in an article such as this, with the option for Mr Peters of writing a letter to the editor expressing his concerns after the article appeared. Politicians certainly have to be thick-skinned enough to put up with robust criticisms, but that does not mean they are excluded from the protection of the normal rules of journalistic fairness. North & South should at least have extended to Mr Peters the same opportunity to comment as it gave to rival politicians.

That part of his complaint is upheld.