WARREN DAVIDSON AGANST BUSH TELEGRAPH

Case Number: 2500

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Bush Telegraph

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Warren Davidson complains a story published in both the Wairarapa Times-Age andBush Telegraph newspapers, with slightly different headlines, breaches several Press Council principles. His concern is, primarily, with the headlines though.

The complaints against both publications are upheld, with one member dissenting from theBush Telegraph decision.

Background

Mr Davidson, a former Tararua District Councillor, quit his position last year after what the newspapers described as ‘bullying and unacceptable behaviour’ by the mayor and council’s CEO.

His resignation sparked a Local Government New Zealand review of the council’s governance processes, which were found to be fit for purpose and consistent with well-performing rural councils. Some recommendations, however, were made.

Significantly, the review did not look at whether Mr Davidson’s reasons for his resignation were accurate or not.

The Times-Age version of the story (March 2) was headlined ‘Report clears council of abuse’ and theBush Telegraph version (March 7) was headlined ‘Report clears council’. Both versions carried a photo with Mr Davidson in the foreground.

The Complaint

Mr Davidson says the headline is inaccurate because the LGNZ report did not cover the allegations, rather it only looked at process.

The story was also unfair because Mr Davidson was not given proper opportunity to comment. The reporter provided him a copy of the report, which his comments were based on. He did not, however, comment on the council being ‘cleared’, because he wasn’t aware of that angle. His viewpoint was therefore taken out of context.

Not including all of the report’s findings/recommendations was unbalanced.

The Response

In dealing directly with the complainant, Times-Age editor Andrew Bonallack first offered Mr Davidson a second interview/story, which was accepted on the basis the headline would be corrected.

The editor ‘neutralised’ the headline on the online version of the story to read ‘Findings of Council probe released’ but refused to print a correction in the newspaper because there wasn’t anything ‘fundamentally wrong’ with it.

The offer of a second story, albeit initially accepted, was turned down with the lack of the print correction being a sticking point.

Mr Bonallack, in responding to the Press Council, said the story was first written for theDannevirke News, but was cut and changed for the Times-Age. He conceded that, during that process, a ‘significant portion’ of the complainant’s comments had been lost.

The editor confirmed the headline was changed online to be ‘cooperative’ but not in print because it was ‘essentially correct’.

Regardless of LGNZ not addressing Mr Davidson’s allegations of bullying and abuse, it was ‘a basic cause and effect’ that the report was sparked by those very things.

The complainant was aggrieved and wanted LGNZ to explore his allegations.

The remedy offered to Mr Davidson, i.e. the second story, was suitable and substantial.

A correction wasn’t practical when the headline was fair and clarification would have been complex.

In regards to the Telegraph’s version of the story, editor Steve Carle published a letter from Mr Davidson in the same issue the story ran in. He viewed this as sufficient.

The Decision

The headline on the Times-Age story was fundamentally wrong. It is incorrect to say the LGNZ report cleared the council of abuse.

Whether the LGNZ report was sparked by Mr Davidson’s allegations of abuse or not, it did not review or rule on them in any way.

The complexity of a clarification is not, in itself, excuse to ignore the need for one.

Digital journalism does not live by a different set of standards from that in print. If it is deemed worthwhile to ‘neutralise’, or effectively correct, a headline online, then it’s reasonable to expect the same efforts in print.

Had the story been limited to the review of council governance processes, the complainant's comments in the abridged version of the story would have been sufficient. However, because theTimes-Age viewed the catalyst of the LGNZ report as significant enough to headline the story on, and to include a photograph prominently featuring Mr Davidson, Mr Davidson’s opportunity to comment should have extended to this angle too.

In regards to the Bush Telegraph story, although the headline did not specifically reference abuse claims, it was still going too far to say the LGNZ report had ‘cleared’ the council.

And to consider that Mr Davidson’s balancing comments would be covered-off by the contents of a separate letter-to-the-editor, received before the story was even published by that newspaper, was insufficient and presumptuous.

The complaints against both publications are upheld.

Tim Watkin dissented from the Bush Telegraph decision and would not have upheld this complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.