HUTT CITY COUNCIL AGAINST WAINUIOMATA NEWS

Case Number: 905

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wainuiomata News

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

This is a complaint against the Wainuiomata News by the Hutt City Council represented by communications manager Kirk MacGibbon.
Mr MacGibbon complains about an article published August 15 and about the manner in which Hutt City’s response on September 12 was treated.
On July 18 a front page article questioned whether Hutt City Council’s Annual Plan gave the Wainuiomata ward (one of six) its fair share of available funding. A survey was printed and readers invited to complete it and send it back to the paper.
On July 25, before the results of the survey, an article was printed reporting Wainuiomata Community Board members Reg Moore’s views that the Hutt City Council was unwise to spend ratepayer funds on museums, in particular the Dowse and Settlers Museums.
On August 15 the results of the survey were published, under the headline, “Survey bags HCC spending”.
It reported strong comments from those surveyed, many of which indicated Wainuiomata residents paid more money in rates than they got benefits from the Council.
On September 12 a letter from Mr MacGibbon was printed challenging the results of the survey and the comments of those surveyed. The headline above the letter was “Council slags survey results”.
Alongside the Hutt City Council letter was a reply by the editor.
On September 19, four letters to the editor were published supporting Wainuiomata News’s handling of the Hutt City Council issue.
It is the articles on August 15 and September 12 which are the subject of this complaint.
Mr MacGibbon asserts that the reporting of the survey on August 15 was negative and that little attempt was made to report the issues with accuracy, fairness and balance.
His issues of concern are
a) Hutt City Council was not given an opportunity to comment on the article.
b) The headline “Survey bags HCC spending” did not accurately convey the content of the article.
c) It was misleading, after a quote from a completed survey, to note that it was written by “an ex-council worker”.
d) The quote “We are just a source of money for those scumbags” is unfair to council workers.
e) There were no positive comments.
f) It was naive and mischievous to suggest local body funding should be on a strict pro rata basis.
g) The survey had limited validity because only 36 “motivated” readers completed it and should not have been seen as representing the view of all people.

Mr MacGibbon also complains that he wrote to the paper asking for an apology and his letter was published without further acknowledgment. Alongside his letter, the reply from the editor had some substantial flaws in it.

The Wainuiomata News responded to these criticisms by saying the News coverage and the Annual Plan have created more interest than usual thereby facilitating the democratic process. In response to Mr MacGibbon’s particular issues the paper replied:
a) That the articles should be viewed in context, namely the last in a series of four. Both sides had been covered in earlier editions.
b) The headlines accurately conveyed the thrust of the stories, often borrowing from the introduction.
c) The “ex-council worker” included those words in his comment on the survey form. They were part of the quote, not an addition by the paper.
d) In his reply on September 12 the editor maintained the reference to “scumbags” referred to the Council rather than its employees.
e) The paper asserts that no positive comments were printed because there were none.
f) The Wainuiomata News is a local paper – there for the interests of Wainuiomata residents.
g) The paper maintains the results were transparent and that the actual numbers were not overstated or obfuscated

The Press Council finds as follows:
a) While not given an opportunity to respond immediately, the Hutt City Council’s letter was published in full on September 12. This should have satisfied the Hutt City Council’s need to respond to criticism of it.
b) The headlines accurately reflect the content of the articles.
c) The Press Council finds no difficulty with a survey contributor identifying themselves as “an ex-council worker”. From the punctuation in the original article it was clearly part of the quote, rather than information added by the newspaper.
The quote reflects the attitude perhaps to Councils in general and does not necessarily give rise to the assumption that the writer used to work for Hutt City Council.
d) The “scumbags” quote is strong language and designed to offend. The paper could have chosen to edit it out but did not. As the quote was not at odds with the other, largely negative, quotes it was a matter of judgment for the paper to choose to show the strength of feelings on this subject.
e) There is no obligation on the paper to find positive quotes when there were none.
f) A local paper focuses on local issues. If that focus becomes parochialism the paper will hear from its readers when enough is enough. That is a matter of judgment for an editor.
g) There was no suggestion that more than 36 people returned the survey. The paper could have included a warning about limited statistical validity but it is unlikely many people were misled. After all, the score was 36-0, it seems.


This complaint is about vigorous, interactive cover of issues of local interest. It seems to have sparked robust debate.

The Press Council does not uphold this complaint.