Case Number: 2321

Council Meeting: MARCH 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Tony Ward-Holmes complains that an editorial in The Press on January 26, 2012 contained incorrect assertions, and was unbalanced and unfair.
The complaint is not upheld.
The editorial was titled:
“Rock fall in Sumner a warning for residents and the City Council.”
At the heart of the editorial was the determination of some Sumner residents in the red zone areas to remain in their houses. The editorial opined that “at the worst lives will be lost. At best, lives will be at risk for years while ratepayers and the Council fund rockfall mitigation work on uninsured and patchily serviced properties.” The view was expressed that endangered householders would have been forced to move on had City Councillors required statutory notices under the Building Act to be enforced. While noting that the residents were not on a wholly irrational limb, the editor stated that “such cocking a snoot is admirable in principle but unsustainable in practice.” The unmistakable opinion of the editor was that residents who were not prepared to move on should be moved on.
In summary, the basis of the Complaint is:
(a) the editorial states numerous assertions of fact about red zones, S 124 notices and rock fall mitigation, virtually none of which are accurate;
(b) if the assertions are all correct, the argument is at best unbalanced and insupportable;
(c) there is an issue of fairness to at least many dozens and perhaps hundreds of Christchurch residents, which exists irrespective of whether the editorial is an article of fact or of opinion.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Press’s position is that the editorial contains very few hard assertions and only one which is demonstrably wrong. This was subsequently corrected albeit tardily. The Press holds the views set out in editorial and says it is entitled to express those opinions. It offered Mr Ward-Holmes the opportunity to address his concerns in a 1,000 word Perspective piece which would have been longer than the editorial. Mr Ward-Holmes declined this offer.
Under the Council’s principles, an editor is entitled to forcefully state the editor’s views and make strong assertions as part of the argument. However, an editor should not present as facts matters which are in dispute and material facts upon which opinions are based must be accurate. Thus, a strong opinion must have a reasonable basis in fact and properly distinguish between the reporting of facts and the passing of comment. If there are inaccuracies, it is necessary to determine whether they are material or serious enough to warrant the upholding of the complaint.
Generally, an editorial does not have to be fair. It would have to be so extreme in substance or tone as to go beyond what is acceptable as opinion for a complaint on the grounds of fairness to be upheld.
The issues are:
(d) are there facts in the editorial which are not accurate?
(e) if so, are those inaccuracies material or serious enough to warrant upholding the complaint?
(f) Was the editorial unfair?
When the editorial is viewed in context, it is clear that it is referring to the homes in Sumner which are still being occupied notwithstanding the danger to occupants from rockfalls. This view is reinforced by the heading. The error referred to in the next paragraph may have to some readers confused the position, but the purport of the editorial was to warn of dangers caused by rockfalls from the Sumner cliffs.
Mr Ward-Holmes alleges that the editorial contains many factual inaccuracies. The Press acknowledges one inaccuracy. It stated that lives would have been lost in a recent rockfall had not the house been red zoned and its residents had moved elsewhere. In fact, the residents had moved because of a s 124 notice. The Press acknowledged this error in a clarification printed on 27 February 2013, although it was aware of the error on 30 January 2013. The clarification was in The Press’s Putting it Right Column. It read:
An editorial on January 26 said that a Sumner house, struck by a dislodged, van-sized boulder the previous week had been red-zoned. The house had, in fact been red-stickered.
The CERA website confirms Mr Ward-Holmes’ assertion that classifying a house as being in the red zone does not automatically require an occupant to vacate that house. The obligation to vacate only arises if the house has been red-stickered by Civil Defence or was subject to a s 124 notice issued by the City Council under the provisions of the Building Act.
Mr Ward-Holmes’ assertion that the point that lives were not lost because of red-zoning is central to the overall argument in the editorial but is untrue. It is correct that on more than one occasion the editorial used “red-zoned” rather than “red-stickered or subject to a s 214 notice”. While the error was unfortunate and some of the statements made were therefore incorrect, the Council does not accept “that lives are not lost because of red-zoning”, was central to the overall argument. The purport of the editorial, as noted above, was to highlight the danger of occupants remaining in homes that could be damaged or destroyed by rockfalls.
Another statement which is said to be inaccurate is “some houses, red-zoned and designated unsafe for occupation, by way of a notice posted under s 124 of the Building Act, are illegally occupied and no moves are being made to evict their residents”. The complaint is that this statement is not true as moves have been made to evict residents. It was stated that there were articles in The Press itself referring to the City Council hiring private investigators to find illegally occupied s124 properties. Only a few of more than 500 houses which have been subject to s124 notices are still occupied.
The Press’s response is that employment of private investigators and “notices to fix” are not in themselves moves to evict. It says that the maximum penalty for not complying with an s124 notice is a $200,000 fine and that people are still occupying these properties. It is said that it is true that no “effective” moves have been made to evict. The editorial did not say no “effective” moves had been made to evict but said “no moves are being made to evict their residents”. This Council cannot resolve factual difficulties but it does appear from The Press’s own acknowledgement that it meant “effective” moves, that there was an inaccuracy in this respect.
There are other statements which Mr Ward-Holmes claims contain opinions based on inaccuracies. The alleged inaccuracies include allegations that the parties are not co-operating to resolve the position; that some owners wish to stay put and that the City Council is willing to help them to do so; the statement above that “lives will be lost or placed at risk”; that the impasse would be avoided if the Council had required s124 notices to be enforced and that services be withdrawn from red-zoned houses; houses condemned have been subject to detailed and lengthy investigation by experts and peer reviewed; that ground and houses have been mapped; that mitigation measures have been considered and ruled out; that some owners simply say they are prepared to take the risk of staying on; are all matters on which this Council can not form a view as to their correctness.
On balance, one and possibly two factual inaccuracies have been established. The first was corrected in the clarification, Putting it Right column, albeit tardily. The correction in a clarification column such as this may in some circumstances not be sufficient to correct the inaccuracy. The property was both red stickered and in the red zone, which the newspaper did not acknowledge. However, in view of the thrust of the editorial, this Council is of the view that the inaccuracies are not such to require an upholding, particularly in view of the correction. In the Council’s view the editorial was entitled to take the view that it did and express it robustly. The errors were unfortunate, and the correction minimal, but did not have a material effect on the purport of the editorial.
The complaint alleges that the editorial was unfair. One reason for this is that red-zoning is not necessarily correct and there have been examples where red-zoning has proved to be incorrect. In the words of the complaint, “for The Press to write an editorial targeting a tiny number of stressed and vulnerable residents on the basis that their zoning must be accurate is very unfair, and … callous”. There is a sense of unfairness, because of the inaccurate statements made in the editorial. However, if the editorial is read, as the heading suggests, as a warning against rockfalls in Sumner, there is no such unfairness to the extent that it was extreme as to go beyond what is acceptable opinion. As noted, it is the Council’s view that this was the purpose of the editorial. The complaint is therefore not upheld on the grounds of being unfair.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.