JOHN WATSON AGAINST KAPI-MANA NEWS

Case Number: 1008

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Kapi-Mana News

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Titahi Bay resident John Watson has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about the editor of his community newspaper abruptly closing off correspondence on a subject “leaving the public none the wiser”.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

The disagreement began last November when Mr Watson wrote to Kapi-Mana News challenging a Porirua Licensing Trust trustee, Sarah Dow, to tell the community what she had learned about the trust’s profitability since her election, because she had campaigned on being prepared to “ask the hard questions about trust performance”. Mr Watson was also trying to learn more about the trust’s finances.

He was keen to know more about its gaming machine operations because the trust itself had told him the information he sought was held by a charitable trust and not subject therefore to freedom-of-information legislation.

Mr Watson’s letter was published, abridged slightly, and headed, Licensing trust accounts still not really transparent. The paper acknowledged the abridgement. A week later, the paper published a letter from trust president John Burke responding to Mr Watson. His letter was published under the heading, Constant swipes at PLT getting tiresome reflecting the content of the letter.

At the foot of Mr Burke’s published letter, editor Matt Dallas said that both parties had had their say and that “debate between the two parties on this matter is now closed”.

Mr Watson was not happy and sought to have the editor change his mind. When he had no success, Mr Watson wrote to the Press Council. Raising a number of points, he was particularly unhappy that Ms Dow had not replied or been encouraged to do so by the newspaper and that the editor had removed the letter’s final paragraph. Mr Watson saw this as only encouraging Mr Burke, rather than Ms Dow, to respond.

Mr Dallas, in the paper’s defence, says he removed the final paragraph because he believed it implied dishonesty and he would not allow such allegations to be published without evidence. He countered, too, that because Mr Watson’s letter was published in a newspaper, anyone who wanted to could reply. In this case, Mr Burke rather than Ms Dow had responded, though he knew she was aware of the letter and had chosen not to react to it.

The Press Council found it could not uphold either leg of Mr Watson’s complaint. It accepted the editor’s argument that no one can be compelled to respond to a letter to the editor and that the final paragraph of the letter, as published, was a clear challenge to Ms Dow, not to the trust president, to respond.

Mr Dallas told the Council that Kapi-Mana News was not “soft” on the licensing trust, and said that Messrs Watson and Burke were long-time political adversaries who had debated the trust, its finances and its openness in the paper’s pages many times in the past.

The Press Council said Mr Watson’s frustration at debate being suddenly stopped was understandable – it had recommended to editors in the past that, where letter-writers were subject to criticism by other letter writers, they should ideally be allowed an opportunity to respond.

That Mr Dallas chose not to allow Mr Watson to come back on this occasion because of the paper’s first-hand knowledge that the correspondents were long-time sparring partners on this particular issue, however, was not unethical or an improper use of editorial discretion.

Editors, the Council repeated, have the sole right to decide what letters to the editor will be published and when debate on a particular subject has run its course. In the usual run of events, a public discussion involving only a claim and counter-claim would be a tad short, in the Council’s view.

In this particular case, however, the paper has offered Mr Watson an alternative to another letter on the subject of the trust’s finances, an opportunity the Council urges him to consider taking up.

In correspondence between the parties and the Press Council, Mr Watson revealed that the information he had been unable to winkle out of Mr Burke, Ms Dow or the licensing trust secretary had, in fact, been made available to him by the Department of Internal Affairs’ gaming and censorship regulation division.

The Council suggested Mr Watson considers accepting the invitation extended to him by Mr Dallas to pass that new information about the trust’s gaming-machine operations to a Kapi-Mana News reporter. It also observed that at the 2007 local body election campaign, Mr Watson had given the paper at least one question it might put to licensing trust trustee Ms Dow.

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