WESTLAND RESIDENTS AND RATEPAYERS GROUP AGAINST HOKITIKA GUARDIAN

Case Number: 2336

Council Meeting: JUNE 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hokitika Guardian

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Introduction
Hugh Cameron, Secretary of the Westland Residents and Ratepayers Group, alleged that an article in the Hokitika Guardian on May 2, 2013 breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) of the New Zealand Press Council Statement of Principles.



The complaint was not upheld.



The Complaint
The article covered a dispute regarding a Westland District property licence fee for occupation of a council owned bach, a court action by various directors and employees of Westland District Property (WDP) and information provided by the Westland Residents and Ratepayers Group (WRRG) denying any involvement in the letters to WDP that had led to the court action.



The article, headlined “Residents’ group distances itself from writs, contained information from WRRG that they were in no way involved in the behaviour (harassment) by one individual (WRRG member) who was then the subject of court action along with the Chair and Secretary of WRRG. The Chair and Secretary were adamant that they were in no way involved, had no idea about any letters sent to WDP, and believed that WDP were using their names to unfairly target WRRG.



WRRG requested that the newspaper publish a retraction of the article.



The Secretary did eventually acknowledge that he had witnessed the signature on a letter for the WRRG Chairman but stated he had forgotten about this as it did not seem to have anything to do with the whitebait bach or the Paringa River and he did not have any recollection of doing so until he saw the documents presented to the court.



Following publication of the article, the WRRG wrote a letter to the newspaper requesting a retraction and that letter was published in the “Letter” section of the newspaper minus only the sentence concerning the request for a retraction the next day.



The complainant acknowledged that “equal column inches” have been given to the WRRP and WDP, but stated that this did not make up for allowing “liars and fraudsters” to have equal column inches with the WRRG. This related to the information in the column provided by WDP.



In regard to the court proceedings, a restraining order was placed on the WRRG member, but the proceedings against the Chair and Secretary were adjourned, as they had filed statements of defence which were to be considered by the appellant’s solicitors.



The Newspaper’s Response
Newspaper editor Paul Madgwick replied that all parties in the differing sides of the dispute had been given equal opportunity to present their views and this will continue.



He stated that the role of a ratepayers group is to enquire, probe and challenge, and to hold their local council to account. In this role, the WRRG had always enjoyed generous coverage in the newspaper with the Chair a very frequent correspondent, and this coverage will continue.



He went on to state that unfortunately, the more recent issues have “assumed an ugly tone that has unsettled this small community, with the Holikita Guardian left to sieve the issues that matter from the vitriol that doesn’t”.



The editor believes that the complaint relates to the fact that WRRG’s demand for a retraction relating to the May 2, 2013 article was instead published as a letter to the editor in the next morning’s edition, and that a further demand on May 3, 2013 was declined.



The editor stood by the article and believed that it was balanced and provided both sets of views. He believed that the newspaper provided both parties the ability to put their views forward and will continue to do so in the future.



Discussion and Decision
The information in the article covered the pending legal action against WRRG members and the fact that the Chair and the Secretary clearly stated that the WRRG, and the two of them, had nothing to do with the letters had led to the court action.



The article also gave the parties with the opposing view the opportunity to put their side,



It also gave an overview of the events had led up to the court action and background information regarding the annual fee of $2000 charged by the council to occupy one of the council owned baches.



Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) had clearly not been breached as the article contained information from both sides of the fence with the differing viewpoints covered.



The complainant acknowledges that “equal column inches’ were given but appears to believe that the newspaper should not have printed information they believe is wrong from the WDP. In fact, the headline itself put the view of WRRG forward.



The newspaper has a responsibility to maintain balance and fairness and this is not done by only printing what one side feels is appropriate.



The newspaper presented both sides of the story and it was up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.



The complaint is not upheld.



Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.