Case Number: 776

Council Meeting: March 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: North Shore City Council

Ruling Categories: Discrimination

The New Zealand Press Council has declined to uphold a complaint from Times Media Group of Auckland, on behalf of a community newspaper Albany Extra, against North Shore City Council.

Under its constitution the Press Council accepts complaints by the press against the conduct of persons and organisations towards the press, but such complaints are relatively rare. In this case the North Shore City Council willingly co-operated with the Press Council in the disposal of this complaint.

The complaint relates to what Albany Extra believes is discriminatory treatment by the city council's communications department in favour of another community newspaper, North Shore Times Advertiser. The complaints stretch back over a year.

Cliff Ashby, group editor of Times Media Group which publishes Albany Extra, became annoyed last year at what he saw as ongoing discrimination, and complained to the Press Council. He was seeking an adjudication that advised the city council to send any press releases to all local media simultaneously, and likewise, treat them equally on matters of council briefings on matters of public interest.

Mr Ashby and his staff's initial complaints to the communications department in March 1999 had, according to Mr Ashby, resulted in a council representative conceding that Albany Extra had been treated differently and that such a practice would cease.

When Albany Extra learned last December that the Times Advertiser's reporter had received a separate briefing on a council issue, it wrote an article about the perceived discrimination together with an editorial, and complained to the Press Council.

In correspondence with the Press Council, city council director of customer services Loretta Burnett disputed the paper's version of the parties' conversations. She said the council had no practice of preferential treatment of the media or any exclusive media relationship. She said the council tried hard to meet the needs of the news media and it was a matter of genuine regret if it failed.

The Press Council declined to uphold the complaint.

First, it said, it had no jurisdiction over the behaviour of news sources, in this case a city council.

Second, the city council said it had no policy of discrimination. Thus, the Press Council believed it was up to local media to monitor that policy. But the Press Council accepted that any news source - including a local body - had the right to manage the release of information as it saw fit.

Third, it was standard journalistic practice to try to tie down sources in such a way as to disadvantage the competition. Such competition should simply make the news outlet missing out, try harder.

Fourth, all requests to a local body, from a newspaper or not, were covered by the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. Convention had it that requests for information were answered in order. Therefore, if a rival newspaper sought information first, its questions could expect to be answered first.

The Press Council said it was surprised that a newspaper felt itself so reliant on the issuing of a press statement and council briefings. Newspapers in a competitive environment, such as that in which Albany Extra found itself, usually - in the Council's experience - fought hard to manage their news sources in such a way that the initiative for breaking news first swung in their favour.

The complaint was not upheld.