CAROL WEBB AGAINST WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 1023

Council Meeting: MAY/JUNE 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Bias

Ms Carol Webb complained to the Press Council about the Wanganui Chronicle's coverage of her complaint to the Wanganui District Council alleging breaches of the Council's own Code of Conduct by the Mayor of Wanganui, Mr Michael Laws. In her view, various aspects of the newspaper's coverage showed bias in favour of the Mayor.

In particular, Ms Webb contended that the repeated publication of derisory comments about herself and others, made by Mr Laws, and the failure of the newspaper to publish a story about her formal objection to the way the Council was addressing her complaint, were two examples where the Wanganui Chronicle was in breach of the Press Council's overriding principle that publications should be "guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance." In support of her well-organised written material, Ms Webb also appeared before the Council to make a personal, and thoughtful, oral and written submission.

Neither part of her complaint is upheld by the Press Council.

The complaint needs to be seen in the context of a contentious mayoral campaign during the lead up to local body elections in October 2004. For several months Mr Laws had enjoyed much scope and space for his views via a weekly contributed column in the Chronicle, although the newspaper ceased his column once he announced he was standing for the mayoralty. Once elected to the position, the newspaper re-established Mr Laws' opinion piece, although unpaid this time.

Ms Webb argued that he frequently used his column, both before and after the election, to make personal attacks on those who opposed his views and this, in her view, was an indication of the close relationship between the newspaper and the Mayor - a relationship that seemed to her to lack "balance and fairness". It is worth noting that in her written submission to the Council Ms Webb said that she unreservedly accepted the editor's assurances that he had no special relationship with Mr Laws. It should also be noted that the local political environment remained heated in the immediate aftermath of Mr Laws' election, especially when he raised doubts about the long-term future of the region's art gallery, the Sarjeant. Some citizens formed a Save Our Sarjeant lobby group. Verbal jousting continued, not only reported in the Chronicle's news articles but also featuring in the Mayor's contributed column.

Then, on February 15, the Wanganui Chronicle published a story announcing that three residents had filed complaints about the Mayor under the Wanganui District Council's Code of Conduct provisions. Two of the three complainants, including Ms Webb, detailed their complaints in the story.

The obvious follow up - Mr Laws' reaction - was printed the next day (February 16) and although Ms Webb would argue that her complaint about the Chronicle includes a range of stories and the way they were handled, this response by Mr Laws is central to her submission to the Press Council. Mr Laws mocked the complainants and made a series of disparaging remarks, referring to "single issue nutters" who were making a "laughing stock of themselves" and to people who were "showing signs of personal paranoia". He maintained a similarly disparaging tone in his weekly column (Feb 21) and in a later page one lead story (March 9).

What is not in dispute is the accuracy of the reporting of the Mayor's words. But was the newspaper taking a "fair and balanced" approach when it gave such public voice, and repeated voice, to Mr Laws treating the complainants with such contempt? Was it "fair" for the complainants to be ridiculed so publicly, especially in a provincial community where many would know the complainants personally?

First, the column contributed by Mr Laws was an opinion piece, in his typically abrasive style, and the Council has repeatedly stressed the right of columnists to take an "unbalanced" view if they so wish. Secondly, some balance was provided by a "sidebar" to the February 16 story which quoted the views of a third complainant about Mr Laws ("I'm an elderly ratepayer . . .just fed up with his bullying.") More balance, and fairness too, was clearly provided the very next day by the Chronicle's editorial (Feb 17) which was critical of the Mayor's vehement response. The editorial expressed concerns about his "flippant" reaction, pointed out that the Mayor "is obliged to treat (the views of others) with respect" and urged the District Council to listen to the complaints which "must be heard". And finally the March 9 lead (largely featuring Mr Laws) was countered and challenged on March 10 by a story that gave ample space (and a bold headline) to another of the complainants.

This complaint required the Press Council to weigh the importance of freedom of speech against the expectation of individuals that they would not be embarrassed and humiliated so publicly.

The Council accepts that Ms Webb found Mr Laws' remarks both offensive and hurtful. Yet residents, and readers, might expect that political debate be blunt, robust and vigorous. At what point does a newspaper's reporting of such "blunt and vigorous" debate become "unfair" to citizens trying to exercise their rights in a democratic society?

The Preamble to the Press Council's Statement of Principles stresses that "there is no more important principle than the freedom of expression". Later, the Preamble continues . . . "individuals also have rights (which) must be balanced against competing interests such as the public's right to know".

Here, the Council upholds the "public's right to know" and the right of the Wanganui Chronicle to report Mr Laws' remarks which, although very strongly expressed, were clearly newsworthy. Indeed, it is through such reports that citizens can judge for themselves the merits of the issue and the merits of the people involved. That is the public's right in a democratic society. Ms Webb, and other complainants, were discomforted by the Mayor's words being published in the newspaper. Nevertheless, in the Council's view, the Chronicle properly exercised its freedom and its right to inform its readers.

That part of Ms Webb's complaint is not upheld.

Ms Webb also pointed to the non-publication of the story that the complainants were disputing the process of hearing their Code of Conduct complaint as further evidence of the newspaper showing bias and lack of balance.

The council proposed to set up a hearing of the complaints under the chair of the deputy-mayor. The point of view of Ms Webb and others was that the proposed tribunal would not appear to be independent.

She sent information about her objections to the procedures proposed by the District Council to the Wanganui Chronicle on February 23. She followed up with a phone call, an e-mail and finally a formal letter of complaint, all trying to get the newspaper to "break" the story. In Ms Webb's view, this "newsworthy and valid story of high public interest" was "deliberately suppressed for more than a week".

The story may have been "of high public interest" and the Chronicle somewhat slow in its release but the Press Council cannot find evidence that it was "deliberately suppressed".

The Local Government Act of 2002 required all local authorities to adopt a "Code of Conduct" for elected members. The Wanganui District Council's own Code of Conduct had only been formally adopted as recently as November 2004, by the newly-elected Council and Mayor. Reporters, and readers, had to grapple with a relatively new and largely untested procedure. Moreover, this seems to have been the first case in New Zealand of such a complaint being laid against a sitting Mayor.

In short, it was a complicated story and a story not easy for a newspaper to background for its readers.

The editor of the Chronicle, John Maslin, agreed with Ms Webb that the story was indeed newsworthy but explained that the reporter had been delayed through attempting to question the Council CEO, Colin Whitlock, and representatives of other bodies, such as the Local Government Commission. The editor also acknowledged usual constraints of resources and time - "occasionally stories have to be held over for attention later".

That the complainants were formally objecting to the Code of Conduct procedure adopted by the Council was eventually covered on March 7, twelve days after Ms Webb had sent the information to the Chronicle. It received front page coverage and Mr Whitlock, the Council's CEO, was quoted at some length. That report was followed by Mr Laws' reaction (another page one lead) on March 9 and then counter-balanced by a story (page four) on March 10 giving an opposing view.

The Press Council cannot agree with Ms Webb's submission that a delay of twelve days between being given the information and then publishing it, especially after seeking the views of various authorities to background the issue, shows either bias or deliberate suppression and this second part of the complaint is also not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Lynn Scott, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Keith Lees, Terry Snow and John Gardner.