SPCA CANTERBURY AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2629

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The SPCA Canterbury complained that a report published online by The Press on August 8 entitled ‘SPCA confiscates man’s dog based on ‘hearsay’, he claims’,breached Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

Background

2. On August 8 The Press published a news report, “SPCA confiscates man’s dog based on ‘hearsay’, he claims”,which concerned the confiscation by the SPCA of a dog from a Christchurch property.

3. The Press report was largely based on the dog owner’s description of events. Kelly Anderson was quoted as saying the SPCA entered his property illegally by forcing a lock on the gate while he was at work; he found a note from the SPCA informing him that they had removed his dog, and asking him to get in touch “urgently”. He questioned the actions of the organisation, saying, “It’s quite odd that they’d go in and take a dog based on hearsay.”

4. Mr Anderson said he went to the SPCA the next day and was told that a member of the public had alleged he had kicked his dog at a nearby park. The person had contacted police, who had handed the matter over to the SPCA.

5. The story said Mr Anderson denied abusing the dog. It quoted him as saying the “worst thing he had ever done to Pipi was to cuddle her”. He said it was dark and rainy night and the witness must have been mistaken.

6. At the time he spoke to The Press, Mr Anderson said he had not seen his dog for almost two weeks and he believed she would be upset and suffering from separation anxiety.

7. The story confirmed that under the Animal Welfare Act, SPCA inspectors can enter properties without a warrant to inspect an animal. They can take an animal, by force as necessary, if they have reasonable grounds to believe it is being ill-treated, or its physical, health and behavioural needs make it necessary.

8. The article concluded with a sentence saying the SPCA could not comment because the case was still under investigation.

The Complaint

9. SPCA Canterbury complained that the article breached Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance. It provided only one side of the story despite the reporter having been told that the organisation could not comment while the case was still subject to an ongoing investigation.

10. The SPCA’s Anna King said the reporter called to ask for confirmation that inspectors had the legal right to enter a property and seize an animal, but didn’t confirm that the story was going ahead at that time; had the SPCA known that, she said, it would have made a general comment relating to the powers of an inspector. “In our opinion, as this scenario is an everyday occurrence in the life of an SPCA inspector, there was no ‘story’ and we had no indication it would be published without balance. If we had known this we would have requested the reporter wait until the investigation was completed and we would have provided the wider story on the case.”

11. Ms King said the SPCA inspector had acted lawfully and correctly in seizing the dog pending investigation. The inspector was acting on a police referral that involved two credible witnesses to the alleged incident of animal abuse by Mr Anderson. “Because we could not comment due to the ongoing investigation, the story led the reader to believe, by omission, that the SPCA was acting an improper manner, when in fact the opposite was true,” she said.

12. SPCA Canterbury’s CEO Barry Helem wrote to the editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, to ask for a public apology. In her response to that letter, the editor referred to a second story that was published on August 11 when the dog was returned to Mr Anderson.

13. The SPCA says that although the second story did provide more comment and context, it did not, in its opinion, excuse the breaches in the first story.

14. Ms King says the first report caused considerable distress to SPCA staff who were the victims of cyber-bullying after publication. “We are one of New Zealand’s most trusted charities and stories like this also put our funding at risk,” she said. “We receive no public funding at a local level and rely heavily on the support of our local community.”

15. She believed “the bar was set low in terms of journalistic integrity on this occasion and our charity was thrown under the bus”.

The Response

16. In her response to the Press Council complaint, Kamala Hayman, acting editor ofThe Press, agreed that the August 8 story could have benefitted from a broader response from the SPCA but “unfortunately the SPCA felt constrained from commenting as it was still investigating the incident”.

17. She said The Press published the story because it believed it would be of interest to readers as it outlined the powers of the SPCA to enter a property to inspect the welfare of an animal.The Press viewed it as “a cautionary story for other people with an inclination to mistreat animals”.

18. She said the journalist had made it clear that he was planning to do a story, and asked the SPCA to correct anything that may have been wrong with Mr Anderson’s side of the story.

19. The editor says the journalist had sought to address the underlying issues brought up by Mr Anderson, that the SPCA had the ability to take his animal away under the Animal Welfare Act;The Press believed that addressing this provided balance to the story in the absence of a comment from the SPCA.

20. The Press was not obligated to inform the SPCA that it was running the story, she said. It is common practice in an open and transparent society to write about issues under investigation.

21. She suggested that a policy of waiting until investigations are complete before applying journalistic scrutiny assumes organisations always conduct investigations in an appropriate manner and that the public has no right to insight or input into these processes until they are complete.

22. “Whilst we understand Ms King’s discomfort with the original story and agree it would have benefitted from more comment by the SPCA, this lay in the hands of the SPCA, which elected not to comment or provide background context,” she said.

23. The purpose of the second story, she said, was to report the outcome of the investigation and the return of the animal to its owner. The journalist sought further comment from the SPCA and included a lengthy comment in the story.

24. Ms Hayman said while The Press has sympathy for public service organisations that rely on charitable funding to cover operating costs, they did not believe this status should put them above scrutiny.

The Decision

25. The issue in this complaint is whether The Press’ story breached Principle 1, which covers fairness and balance as well as accuracy. Accuracy is not under consideration here.

26. Having heard Mr Anderson’s side of the story, the journalist sought comment from the SPCA but was told it could not comment until an investigation was completed. The journalist then asked for confirmation that the SPCA has the legal power to remove an animal from a property when the owner is not present, which was included in the story for balance.The Press said it believed Mr Anderson’s situation provided a cautionary tale to the public, that the SPCA had the power to enter a property and seize an animal whose health and welfare was compromised in some way, even if an investigation into an alleged base of abuse was not eventually proven.

27. From an editorial standpoint, the journalist did everything required of him: he requested a comment from the SPCA to balance the accusations of the dog’s owner, and explained in the story the SPCA’s powers under the Animal Welfare Act. The editor made the decision to publish the story rather than wait for the outcome of the investigation, which would have provided balance and context; in hindsight, she agreed the story would have benefited from more comment by the SPCA, but “this lay in the hands of the SPCA, which elected not to comment or provide background context”. The second story, published on August 11, provided comment and background context.

28. The Press said is common practice to write about issues while they are under investigation, and charitable organisations like the SPCA, which rely on public funding, cannot expect to be above scrutiny because of their status.

29. In this case, the story was an unfolding one, and three days laterThe Press published a fair and balanced follow-up story, which covered the return of the dog to its owner, and reported the SPCA’s reasons for removing the dog from the property, with quotes from the SPCA Canterbury chief executive.

30. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, and Christina Tay.

Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.