CHRISTINA PATON AGAINST HOROWHENUA-KAPITI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 1002

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Horowhenua-Kapiti Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Censorship, Supression of Fact

A complaint by a Foxton Beach woman, Christina Paton, has spurred the New Zealand Press Council to issue an adjudication reiterating one of its principal objectives – to preserve the established freedom of the New Zealand press.

Mrs Paton’s approach to the Council stemmed from comments in the August agenda for Horowhenua District Council’s development committee meeting, made by development manager Linda Archer. The comments that unsettled Mrs Paton read: Item 6, Relationship with the media. Update: Monthly meetings with the Editor of the Chronicle arranged to go over previous month’s articles. Meetings in relation to editorials that were counter-productive.

On the face of it, Mrs Paton wrote, “this looks as if a local body that does not like honest reporting of its meetings is hobbling the press.

“I’m asking you”, she wrote to the Press Council, “to investigate whether the Horowhenua-Kapiti Chronicle is having to compromise investigative, accurate reporting with the threat of the [council] taking away a considerable advertising budget.”

Editorials, she said, should be the soul of a publication and set a high standard. If the district council saw an editorial as being counter-productive, then surely the editor had hit a soft spot, exposed a “running sore” and deserved praise for his forthrightness.

In reply, editor Bernie Whelan, said that Mrs Paton’s comments indicated the need for him to illustrate how editors interacted with all readers. In any given month, he said, he welcomed and had meetings with a range of people and organisations in the community who might, or might not, be happy with material published in the Chronicle.

“They have a right to express their opinions about any story and, within the bounds of the time I have available daily, I am happy to give them that opportunity.”

Though he had had contact with Ms Archer on a range of issues, he said he did not have scheduled monthly meetings with her to go over the previous month’s Chronicle articles. He had, he said, verbally pointed out to Ms Archer and the council’s chief executive what Mr Whelan, called the “unfortunate terminology” of the wording in the committee’s activity report.

It was good, he said, to see members of the community taking an active role in issues in their local media and their local council.

The Press Council wholeheartedly concurs. At its final meeting for 2004, the Council said that it had no reason not to take Mr Whelan’s word for the nature of the newspaper’s relationship with the district council. But it was cheered by Mrs Paton’s commitment to a free press, a commitment the Press Council clearly shares.

The Press Council says that, in its experience, most local bodies and politicians endeavour to persuade their local paper to give them positive coverage. That is the transactional nature of much political journalism in 2004. However, newspaper editors are generally wise to these stratagems because providing good publicity is not the role of the print media.

The job of the local paper is, the Press Council said, chiefly to reflect back to its community the diverse actions and views of those who make up that community. That responsibility included having a sometimes robust relationship with the community’s political leaders and their staff.

The Press Council said Mrs Paton had provided no evidence that the relationship between Mr Whelan and the council was any different from that which existed between most local papers and their local councils or MPs.

Nonetheless, because a free and independent press is one of the pillars that underpins any democracy, it is good to know that this concept has backing from both Mrs Paton and the Chronicle’s editor. Freedom-of-the-press watchdogs are valuable and sometimes scarce commodities, the Council concluded.

The complaint is not upheld.