BRENT PROCTER AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 874

Council Meeting: MARCH 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Bias
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Editorial Freedom

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Mr Brent Procter over The Southland Times’ coverage of the closure of the Elm Court elderly care unit in Invercargill. Mr Procter’s complaint was extensive and wide-ranging but its general thrust was that the paper was fundamentally biased against Elm Court (on the orders, Mr Procter alleged but did not substantiate, of senior management from Independent Newspapers Ltd, owners of The Southland Times).

He also made some specific complaints about the non-publication of a particular letter to the editor and of a statement by the Friends of Elm Court, the publication of an editorial attacking the tactics of the Friends and the delay in publishing and abridgement of a letter replying to the editorial.

Mr Procter attached to his complaint copies of a number of articles, letters and editorials from the Times on the subject of Elm Court. This material effectively rebutted his complaint of fundamental bias in the news columns since it contained a wide range of views on the issue. The paper’s editorial opinion was certainly in favour of the closure of Elm Court - as it was entitled to be - but it was clear that this did not prevent the Times giving a considerable airing to alternative views through its news columns and letters to the editor.

On the matter of the unpublished letter, the editor said there was no record of it having been received. In any event, the Council has frequently stated that except in exceptional circumstances - which did not exist in this case - the publication of letters must be at the discretion of the editor.
As to the unpublished statement by the Friends, the editor said the paper had been contacted by the organisation’s president, in whose name it was made, asking for it not to be used, and before its status was clarified it had been overtaken by events. The council considers that a reasonable explanation in the circumstances and, in any event, the paper’s coverage of the issue was balanced in spite of the absence of that particular offering.

The editorial, which seems to be what sparked the complaint, was a vigorous denunciation of a letter sent by Friends of Elm Court - and written by Mr Procter - to the principals and rectors of local schools inviting staff and pupils to join the campaign to save Elm Court.
The editorial was strongly worded, and it is understandable that Mr Procter would find it disturbing, but it did not go beyond the bounds of honest opinion. Mr Procter’s own comments, including some of the content of the letter to the schools, were equally strongly worded and likely to disturb those holding different views.

Given the nature of the editorial Mr Procter was certainly entitled to a right of reply and for it to be published promptly. The editor explained that the delay was caused by a huge backlog of letters mostly commenting on the terrorist attacks on the United States which occurred on the very day the editorial on Elm Court appeared. The council accepts that explanation, but does point out to editors that it is important that a right-of-reply be published promptly so as not to undermine its effectiveness.

The editing of the letter did not, in the Council’s view, alter its meaning and in any case it was marked as having been abridged.

The complaint is not upheld.

Mr Alan Samson took no part in this Council adjudication.