WILLIAM LENTJES AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2371

Council Meeting: MARCH 2014

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

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


1. William Lentjes complains that an article published on 20 November 2013 by The Press breached Principles 1 and 5 of the Press Council principles. Principle 1 requires accuracy, fairness and balance in publications while Principle 5 concerns headlines and captions and requires that they accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.
2. A similar complaint was made to The Press, but not to the Press Council, by Mr Lentjes’ mother. Mr Lentjes has sent the Press Council the relevant material and asked for it to be considered as part of his complaint.
3. The Press Council upholds the complaint of a breach of Principle 5.

Background

4. On 20 November 2013 The Press published an article (which also appeared online at stuff.co.nz) with the headline “Costly lesson after buying car without WOF” and the subtitle “$3000 repairs needed on second-hand car”.
5. The article reported that Mr Lentjes, a registered car dealer, had sold a car to Cassandra Bean. It said the car had no warrant of fitness and although Mr Lentjes had said it required only a wheel alignment, when she took it for a warrant it required “more repairs than promised”. Ms Bean is reported as saying there was actually “a list of things that needed repairing” and that when she spoke to Mr Lentjes about the repairs, he said “It’s not my problem, get over it”.

The Complaint

6. Principle 1: Mr Lentjes complains that there was no effort to reflect his view. He says:
a. There is no detail in the report about the cost of repairs. There is only the mention of $3000 in the headline. He told the reporter that the cost of bringing the car to warrant of fitness standard would have been $150. A friend of Ms Bean, who had inspected the car before she purchased it, said that if it did require repairs for the warrant, the cost would probably be less than $500. He had given her a discount of $500 because the car had no warrant.
b. Inclusion of remarks made by a MTA spokesman reinforced the message given by the headline.
c. He made a mistake in failing to get Ms Bean to sign a statement that she would not use the car until she had obtained a warrant. He regarded this as a “red tape” issue as she was clearly willing to buy the car without a warrant.
d. He did not say “It’s not my problem, get over it”.

7. Principle 5: Mr Lentjes says the subtitle implies that $3000 was the cost of bringing the car up to warrantable standard, when in fact the cost was closer to $150.

The Press response

8. The Press initially responded only to the complaint from Mr Lentjes’ mother. There ensued some correspondence about the condition of the car, the cost of repairs, the various reports on the condition of the car, Ms Bean’s rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act and Mr Lentjes’ conduct as evidenced by his email correspondence with Ms Bean (copies of which have been supplied to the Press Council).
9. A further response was addressed to both Mr Lentjes and his mother. It said the essential fact was that Mr Lentjes unlawfully sold a car without a warrant of fitness and that the car was subsequently assessed as being in very poor condition. It referred to the “buyer beware” issue and a possible wider issue of public safety.
10. The Press later responded direct to the Press Council, apologising for the delay in replying to Mr Lentjes’ complaint and acknowledging that the sub-heading reference to the figure of $3000 could not be sustained, had not been verified by the reporter and should not have been published.
11. However, The Press also says that the evidence provided by Mr Lentjes essentially supports the substance of the story that was published – that he sold a car without a warrant of fitness or a relevant signed undertaking from the buyer, and that the car was not in a warrantable state at the time of sale. It said that if the car had been properly checked before the deal and Ms Bean made aware of its shortcomings, it is highly likely that she would not have purchased it.

Discussion

Principle 1
12. The correspondence between Mr Lentjes, his mother and the Press has been largely concerned with the condition of the car and the cost, or likely cost, of repairing it.
13. It is not disputed that Mr Lentjes sold the car when it did not have a warrant of fitness and that he did not get Ms Bean to sign an undertaking not to use the car until she had obtained a warrant. In doing so he breached his legal obligations. This is more than a “red tape issue” – it is a breach of a fundamental legal obligation that is in place to protect consumers.
14. The Press article quite rightly makes its main point on the importance of the legal requirements and the protection they afford for buyers and in describing this aspect of the dealings between Mr Lentjes and Ms Bean, the article is accurate.
15. Unfortunately, it goes further than the main point and into the disputed area of the extent of repairs needed to the car. There is an implication that Ms Bean had been deceived and that Mr Lentjes had led her to believe that it needed minor and inexpensive repairs when it needed much more. There seems to be some confusion between the work necessary to bring the car up to warrantable standard, which the evidence establishes as repairs to the brakes and shock absorbers at a cost of $260, and the further work recommended in a mechanical report obtained by Ms Bean after the purchase and not seen by Mr Lentjes until after he had been interviewed for the article.
16. It was inaccurate to say that “there was a list of things that needed repairing” in the context of bringing the car up to a warrantable standard.
17. The Press argues that even if the further work was not necessary for the warrant, it was necessary to bring the car up to a state of fitness for purpose as required by the Consumer Guarantees Act. It is not at all clear to what extent the further work was necessary to bring the car up to a “fitness for purpose” standard and to what extent it was simply desirable because of the age and general condition of the car. This is a matter for determination by the Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal. However the distinction was not made in the article and the clear implication both from the wording of the article and that of the subheading is that very substantial work was needed to bring the car up to warrantable standard. To that extent the article is inaccurate and there was some unfairness to Mr Lentjes in that he had not had an opportunity to see and comment on the mechanical report.
18. Without independent evidence, it is not possible to determine whether Mr Lentjes made the remark attributed to him by Ms Bean.

Principle 5
19. The Press acknowledges that the figure of $3000 in the sub-heading had not been verified and should not have been used.
20. In addition the headline “Costly lesson after buying car without WOF” is not entirely accurate. It is established that the cost of obtaining a warrant for the car would have been less than the discount applied by Mr Lentjes. It was not the absence of the warrant but rather the general condition of the car that resulted in substantial repair costs.

Decision

21. The article in question was substantially accurate. However there was a breach of Principle 5 in that the headline did not fairly convey the substance of the report. To that extent the Press Council upholds the complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.