Case Number: 813

Council Meeting: December 2000

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Taste Lack of

A complaint by the Napier Local Bodies Watchdog Association Inc., about an article published 21 September 2000 in Hawke's Bay Today has been partially upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

The complaint lodged by J.Hurst and D.Bosley, secretary and president respectively of the Association was in five parts. The first was that the tenor of the article was personalised, misled the public, smacked of sarcasm, was insulting, condescending, grossly erroneous, speculative, and trivialised some very serious concerns of Napier ratepayers/citizens. If left uncorrected the article would harm the Association's credibility and that of its chairperson and official spokesperson, David Bosley. Mr Bosley took the opportunity of presenting the main points of the Association's complaint in a personal appearance at the meeting of the Press Council, which considered the complaint.

The second part concerned the sentence. "Instead Napier's premiere public watchdog Dave Bosley will continue his one-man crusade for greater public accountability by the Council". The Association maintained that "Bosley being given the title of Napier's premiere public watchdog - was patronising and smacked of sarcasm. And that the submission to Council wanting better public accountability was in fact made by the Napier Local Bodies Watchdog Association Incorporated not solely Bosley.

The third section of the complaint referred to the use of the word "surprisingly" in the sentence "he began surprisingly (with a few special thanks for the Council)". The complainants maintain that the use of the word "surprisingly" demeaned and denigrated their genuine expression of thanks and made the Association's dealings with Council even more difficult.

The fourth complaint referred to the use of the words "says" in the sentence "then he castigated it for the loss of the East Pier site (which he says cost the Council $34,000.00 in ground rental annually);"The word "says", the complainants maintain, implies conjecture and speculation. The final part of the complaint was in relation to the published reference to a rate increase of 6-8% when Mr Bosley had stated rates had increased by 68.7%.

In relation to the first complaint the editor stated that the issues Mr Bosley raised were not new and had already been reported and that the article was "nothing more than a light-hearted attempt to find something new to say about [Mr Bosley's] long running battle with the Napier City Council."

In relation to the second complaint, the editor said that "the reference to Mr Bosley, as Napier's premiere public watchdog was sincerely meant, because that is what he is." Further, the editor said that Mr Bosley is seen as the public front of Napier Local Bodies Watchdog Association Incorporated.

In relation to the third complaint, the editor maintained that the word "surprisingly" was justified because it was rare "for Mr Bosley to say anything nice about the Council." Further, the editor did not believe the reference would have undermined Mr Bosley's relationship with the Council, since the Councillors would have heard it all for themselves.

In relation to the fourth complaint, the editor stated "Mr Bosley's view of how the Council spends ratepayers money is often different to the official line. It is not, therefore unreasonable for financial claims by Mr Bosley to be attributed to him and not reported as fact."

In relation to the fifth complaint the editor acknowledges "a fairly understandable error" and says that the paper would have run a correction if Mr Bosley had drawn the error to the paper's attention. In fact the true figure was subsequently published.

The approach an editor takes to a story is up to the editor. In this case, the story attempted to deal in a different way with material that was not entirely fresh. However, it was a matter of public importance and the Council considers that the tone of levity was ill judged. The Press Council's sixth principle is that "Publications should, as far as possible, make proper distinctions between reporting of facts and conjecture, passing of opinions and comment." It is the Council's opinion that while not breaching this principle, the newspaper was perilously close by its attempt to poke fun at a member of the public intent on performing a civic duty. While Mr Bosley certainly does often appear to be the spokesperson for the Association in Hawke's Bay, he notes that the submissions to Council were made on behalf of the Association and not by him in his personal capacity. The article does not acknowledge even the existence of the Association. To this extent, Mr Bosley's complaint is upheld.

The Press Council's first principle is of one of accuracy. This principle was breached in spirit by omission of the Mr Bosley's connection with the Association. Mr Bosley may have taken the inclusion of the word "surprisingly" to demean and denigrate his actions. On the other hand others may have taken the word more literally. Similarly, the slant that Mr Bosley puts on the word "says" would not be universally adopted. He did "say" the information in his presentation and the paper is entitled to reflect that in its report.

There was a serious error of fact over the percentage increase in rates. It is unfortunate that the error was not pointed out to Hawke's Bay Today until some time later. The mistake was subsequently corrected. It was a genuine mistake and as it was not put directly to the paper, this part of the complaint is not upheld.

This was a vigorous complaint from a group of committed, involved community workers. Their strength of feeling about community issues is to be commended and encouraged. Editors should be reminded that, when reporting a news story, meticulous care should be taken to be accurate and appropriate. The editor of Hawke's Bay Today, Jim Eagles is a member of the Press Council. He was not present at the meeting when the complaint was discussed.