J.PAGANI AGAINST THE DOMINION

Case Number: 619

Council Meeting: JULY 1996

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: The Dominion

The New Zealand Press Council has partially upheld a complaint made by Mr John Pagani, Communications Director of the Alliance Party, against The Dominion about an article published on 5 March. The article, headlined "Fighting drug culture on the home front", was based on an interview with Mr Jim Anderton, the Alliance leader, and it concerned his views on drug abuse, its victims and its treatment. In the two introductory paragraphs reference was made to a recent experience of drug abuse in Mr Anderton's own family and in a box attached to the article and printed in bold type further specific details were given of the drug overdose taken by Mr Anderton's son Richard and its horrific consequences. The information was sourced to an article previously published in the National Business Review, a paper which does not come under the Press Council's jurisdiction.

Mr Pagani's complaint, which was made initially to the editor of The Dominion, covered seven points.

Mr Pagani claimed that the cooperation of Mr Anderton in the preparation of the article was obtained under false pretences. He said that Mr Anderton had a longstanding and well-known policy of refusing comments on his son's illness and that an undertaking had been sought and obtained from the journalist that the interview would not be presented in the context of Richard Anderton's situation. Richard Anderton was not discussed during the interview. However, Mr Pagani claimed the presentation of the article, particularly the headline, the front page teaser ("Drugs and the family - Jim Anderton's warning"), the photo of Mr and Mrs Anderton accompanying the article, the introductory paragraphs and the box side-bar all linked the interview with the illness of his son. He thought the journalist may have acted in good faith but the undertaking given had been breached in the production process.

Mr Pagani next complained that the method of obtaining Mr Anderton's cooperation had not been disclosed in the story. He thought that this concealment would have led to confusion among readers as to whether Mr Anderton had breached his own insistence that his privacy in this area be respected.

He claimed that the presentation of the article was manipulated in a way which suggested cooperation in discussion of his son's illness had been obtained and may even have suggested Mr Anderton wrote it. The teaser and the photo were mentioned in this connection but particularly the use of Jim Anderton's name in bold type in a summarising subheading of the kind in which a writer's by-line is usually found. He found the omission of the reporter's name extraordinary.

Mr Pagani further charged that the information in the box had not been verified, that indeed parts of it were incapable of verification and should therefore have been treated with extreme caution, and that in one serious respect the material was simply wrong.

He further claimed that the presentational elements of the article mentioned earlier had no relevance to the substance of the story and were introduced only for reasons of prurience and sensationalism.

The final complaint was against the invasion of Richard Anderton's privacy. He believed Richard Anderton's illness was of no legitimate public interest and pointed out that the press in general had respected his privacy.

In conclusion Mr Pagani suggested that perhaps in this case the Dominion's editorial views had been allowed to influence its news reporting.

In response, the editor of the newspaper denied all the charges.

He asserted full cooperation had been obtained and enclosed a note from the journalist making clear Richard Anderton had not been mentioned in her interview. He denied any manipulation of the story and thought the idea that Mr Anderton might have been seen as the writer was absurd. He claimed the facts in the box were properly attributed and checked as fully as possible. He rejected the accusation of sensationalism and prurience and added he believed the experience of Mr Anderton's son was relevant to the story and handled tastefully. He agreed that Mr Anderton was not informed of the introduction of the additional material but that was usual in such circumstances and was an editorial decision. He further expressly denied editorial pressure had been applied and defended the journalist's integrity. He claimed her by-line was not used because extra material had been added. He concluded by asking Mr Pagani to stop "haranguing" his staff.

Further submissions by Mr Pagani to the Press Council indicated that he was far from satisfied with the editor's response and he repeated the same seven charges while accepting that the journalist in no way acted improperly. Replying yet again to the Press Council, the editor accused Mr Pagani of developing conspiracy theories and asserted that the conditions agreed before the interview related only to that not to the subsequent article. Mr Pagani denied the conspiracy charges and repeated his allegations.

In addressing the complaint, the Press Council found there were two basic issues. The first concerned the undertaking to Mr Anderton and whether this was breached improperly and the second whether there was an inappropriate invasion of privacy.

The interview with Mr Anderton on drug problems was obtained on the understanding that his son's illness would not be referred to. Accounts differed as to whether the agreement applied just to the interview or included the subsequent story. In any case it was well known to the newspaper and to most readers that Mr Anderton did not wish to discuss his son in public and most sections of the press had respected this wish. There was no doubt that if Mr Anderton had known how the interview was to be presented he would have refused to have given it.

Given this background, the inclusion of the material in the box and the introductory paragraphs constitute in the Council's opinion, a flagrant breach of the agreement and is not in accord with good journalistic standards. The Council recognises that the journalist was scrupulous in keeping the agreement and deserves no censure, the absence of her by-line being designed to absolve her of responsibility for the final story. The features editor, however, showed scant regard for the agreement or for Mr Anderton's well-known position on a sensitive family issue. The complaint that the newspaper infringed the agreement was therefore upheld. The Press Council stressed that when conditions for interviews are laid down, particular care should be taken that they are understood clearly and unambiguously by both parties.

The Council did not uphold the other parts of the complaint. Members did not agree that the story was manipulated so that it appeared Jim Anderton had agreed to talk about his son. Though the photo, the headline and the teaser included some elements of innuendo, they did not necessarily imply this and could refer appropriately to the main substance of the story about which there was no complaint; in addition the opening paragraphs of the story did indicate his reluctance to do so.

The charges that Richard Anderton's privacy was invaded and that the presentation of the article including the introduction, headline, teaser, photo and box had no relevance to the substance of the article and were included for reasons of prurience and sensationalism were not accepted. The material in the box and in the introductory paragraphs had appeared elsewhere previously and was already in the public domain. Information about Mr Anderton's family experience of drug abuse was directly relevant to his views on the subject and would have been an appropriate context if the conditions on the interview had not existed. Public figures are necessarily subject to close scrutiny and since Mr Anderton's family circumstances had already had an impact on his political performance, media interest in his family could be defended.