GARY OSBORNE AGAINST THE AUCKLANDER

Case Number: 1021

Council Meeting: JUNE 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Aucklander

Ruling Categories: Bias
Accuracy

Mr Gary Osborne has complained about a report in The Aucklander of March 9, 2005. He complains the report was inaccurate and biased.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
The complaint has its origins in an approach to Mr Osborne on February 23 by a reporter. She was researching what was then the state of play in proceedings between Waitakere City Council and pool owners. Regulations administered by local authorities have been a long-standing source of controversy and dispute with pool owners and Mr Osborne, as a vocal member of the Pool Owners Action Group formed in 2004, was an obvious source of information.
The reporter received information from Mr Osborne and from the Waitakere City Council. She spoke to Mr Michael Pepper whose name, among others, was given to her by Mr Osborne.
The article was published on March 9 under the heading “Pool owner wants day in court”. The account reported Mr Pepper’s dissatisfaction with the procedures adopted by the council since a ruling by Justice Randerson on the regulation regime in October. It said Mr Pepper was declining to seek an exemption and wished the situation to be tested in court.
The report went on to provide some details of the status of a number of proceedings in which the council was pursuing prosecution of pool owners.
On March 29 Mr Osborne telephoned the editor-in chief of The Aucklander, Mr Ewan McDonald, to complain about the article and on the same day he communicated his complaints by e-mail.
He said the article was inaccurate and showed bias. He particularly objected to a passage in the article which concluded “The judge upheld the council approach for the most part but also allowed for shades of grey over most aspects of the immediate pool area.” He challenged the figures given by the council for the status of proceedings and strongly objected to the inaccuracy of the reporting in claiming “of 117 properties due to face prosecution only four are compliant according to Justice Randerson’s October ruling.”
Mr McDonald replied by e-mail on March 30 saying he would pursue the matter with the reporter. On March 31 Mr McDonald e-mailed Mr Osborne accepting that there might be some discrepancies in the figures and explained the District Court was unable to provide any further clarification.
He did, however, stand by the report and in particular “because only four of the cases were withdrawn in the light of the Randerson ruling, we stand by our use of the phrase “the judge upheld the council approach for the most part.” Mr McDonald said he considered the matter closed.
Mr Osborne was unhappy with this and laid a complaint with the Press Council on April 3.
The editor responded to the complaint on April 19 and Mr Osborne replied to that response on May 3. In those exchanges some new material was introduced. There was a difference of opinion over whether or not Mr Osborne had been responsible for critical e-mails to The Aucklander. Mr Osborne quoted at some length from the Randerson ruling. But the nub of the complaint remained inaccuracy and bias.
Mr Osborne lays great stress on the detail of the status of the proceedings. It is clear The Aucklander had difficulties in obtaining an independent version of the figures and after the complaint to the Press Council on April 3 went back to the Waitakere Legal Services Manager seeking further clarification on April 11. The newspaper also made a further attempt to obtain a meeting with the relevant District Court officer but was not successful. A further difficulty appears to have risen in the way the numbers are calculated, whether on a number of properties or a number of individuals facing prosecution.
What does seem to be clear is that after the Randerson judgment four cases were immediately withdrawn as a result of that judgment and the council is proceeding with a number of other prosecutions and is attempting to deal with others through different processes. It might have been helpful to readers if the March 9 report had attributed the figures it quoted to the Waitakere City Council.
But it is not obvious that had a different set of figures been provided it would have materially changed the tenor of the article.
It is also clear that the October ruling by Justice Randerson, on an application by the Waitakere City Council for a declaratory judgment to clarify the law, did not resolve all the difficulties of implementation and he suggested that further legislation might be required.
The debate appears to have been highly partisan and differences of interpretation can be expected. The claim in The Aucklander that both the council and pool owners have claimed victory from the ruling appears to be accurate. The report does not purport to be a judgment on the merits of the argument but reflects a particular stage in a developing situation.
In the context of a report which gives ample space to Mr Pepper’s dissatisfaction with council Mr Osborne’s suggestion of bias cannot be sustained nor, given the problem with the figures, can his complaint of inaccuracy.

The complaint is not upheld.

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