FRANK SHAW AGAINST AKAROA MAIL

Case Number: 2714

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Akaroa Mail

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

Overview

1. Frank Shaw says four pieces published by Akaroa Mail between December 2017 – June 2018 breach the Media Council’s Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and 2 (privacy). The first of the pieces (published on 15 December 2017) referred to allegations of a “bullying culture” at Akaroa Area School. Two later stories published on 22 May and 8 June 2018 respectively referred to the appointment by the Ministry of Education (MoE) of a statutory manager to the school. The fourth piece comprised a letter to the editor published on 22 June 2018 from one Alan Nobbs.

Background

2. The pieces can be briefly summarised. The December article referred to a “minority” of people having complained the Education Review Office (ERO) over concerns of bullying at the school. The story included comments by the school’s chair of trustees refuting the allegations but referred to the school having commissioned an external evaluation of its complaints policy and practices.

3. The May story reported the appointment of a limited statutory manager to the school by MoE. It mentioned the manager’s experience and her intentions in her role. The story referred to the school’s trustees as supporting the manager’s appointment.

4. The June article reported on the manager’s progress at the school and her liaison with the school’s principal, staff and the wider school community. It is fair to say the May and June stories reported positively in relation to the manager’s appointment.

5. The writer of the June letter published by the newspaper expressed concern as to an anonymous “poison pen’ letter which had been circulating in the Akaroa community. The writer was critical of its unnamed author. The Council has not been provided with the anonymous letter but assumes it made adverse claims as to the behaviour of particular community members, some of who presumably were connected with the school.

The Complaint

6. Mr Shaw claims the various Akaroa Mail pieces show “bias”. While his actual concerns are a little difficult to discern precisely the Council understands Mr Shaw to claim that the parties who had originally referred the school to ERO had genuine anxieties about bullying there. It was wrong for the newspaper simply to publish rebuttals from the school’s chair of trustees. At its simplest Mr Shaw claims the paper failed to properly investigate the situation and report accordingly. The issues were of serious concern to people within the Akaroa community and the newspaper failed to provide proper balance by recording opposing views.

7. It was also wrong, Mr Shaw says, for the newspaper to refer in the December 2017 story to a “minority” having approached ERO. Mr Shaw says some “23 families” were involved.

8. Mr Shaw says the stories portrayed the manager as not being “neutral “when her role requires such a stance. He claims the reporting has “damaged” the relationship between the manager and the parent community.

9. The complainant takes particular issue with the letter. He claims the correspondent and the newspaper has breached the privacy of “two people” within the community. Mr Shaw says the letter “invaded the privacy” of those people. The published letter has served to “breed mistrust in [the] community and encourages divisiveness”.

10. Finally, Mr Shaw complains that the school’s chair of trustees, the writer of the published letter and the newspaper itself are conflicted. The board chair provides periodical freelance material for publication in theAkaroa Mail. The correspondent is a former school board chair and Akaroa Mailaccepts paid advertising from the school.

The Response

11. The newspaper, in a detailed response, does not accept any of the claims. It says its reportage was fair. The paper provided an update on long running matters involving the school. It says it was entitled to rely on statements from the board chair, she being reliable. The paper’s attempts to corroborate suggestions school staff had resigned through bullying had failed.

12. The newspaper refers to the claims about bullying at the school having received wider coverage including stories run in the ChristchurchPress.

13. The paper denies being in any way influenced though its association on other matters with the trustees’ chair or through it having been paid by the school for advertising space.In the latter case the amounts in question had been small.

14. The newspaper rejects the claim the stories and the Nobbs letter unfairly targeted particular individuals. No one’s privacy has been breached.

{{ruling['The Response Extra']}}

The Decision

15. The Media Council does not agree with Mr Shaw. It has some knowledge of the background, this having been covered in the complaint leading to the Councils decision inRyan v Stuff / The Press (decision 2675).

16. The Council sees no bias in the three stories which are subject to Principle 1. These pieces covered a matter which on any objective view was current within the local community. The December article was not unbalanced or unfair because of the “minority” reference. While some 23 families may have sought ERO’s assistance this fact is not, in the Council’s view, material. The Council reminds itself that MoE had advised that the people who had referred matters to ERO had chosen not to participate in prescribed complaints processes when the Ministry had become involved (note Ryan).

17. The articles published in May and June provided an update by covering the manager’s appointment. While these stories put a positive slant on the appointment, the school and its future this element did not cause the reporting to be unbalanced. The Council fails to see how these stories might have adversely affected the manager’s relationship with the parent community.

18. Nor does the Council regard the stories as being somehow imbalanced, or the newspaper being somehow compromised, because of the fact the current board chair has periodically supplied the newspaper with unrelated articles for publication. This connection by itself does not give rise to a conflict. Nor does the Council regard the paper as being conflicted because it accepts modest payments from the school for advertising.

19. The majority view of the Council is that the Nobbs letter comprises an opinion piece which the newspaper was entitled to publish. Leaving aside the fact the correspondence did not identify the writer of the poison pen letter, nor the individuals supposedly targeted by the letter, opinion pieces do not need to be balanced. Principles 4 & 5 apply. The Council notes that the poison pen letter had been widely circulated in the community and the majority finds it difficult to hold the newspaper to account for any breach of privacy.

20. While the Council is unanimous in its view that the complaints of bias and imbalance should not be upheld, three members, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper and Tim Watkin would uphold the complaint that the publication of the Nobbs letter amounted to a breach of privacy. While the letter did not identify anyone named in the anonymous letter, at least two people were described in a way that made them easily identifiable. In addition, while the letter itself did no more than identify them as people against whom unspecified allegations had been made, an article in the same issue of the Akaroa Mail went further and referred to allegations of potentially criminal behaviour.

21. The complaint is not upheld

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.