MARK AMMON AGAINST THE WAITOMO NEWS

Case Number: 845

Council Meeting: September 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waitomo News

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy

Mr Ammon submitted a dossier of 40 pages relating to coverage by the Waitomo News of the application by Coast Community Recreational Hall and Sports Centre Incorporated to the Waitomo District Council for funding to assist in the establishment of a community hall and recreation centre at Marokopa. His submission ranges over the several months in which the development proposal was a topic attracting lively public debate. In his final statement to the Council on 24 August five specific aspects of the complaint against the Waitomo News are identified for scrutiny by the Press Council.

It is not easy for a small twice-weekly newspaper, in keeping abreast of contentious issues, to combine balanced reporting of opposing voices with vigorous expression of an editorial stance on the issues. The Letters to the Editor section appears to have been readily available for adverse comment on the newspaper’s performance. It is not for the Press Council to say if things might have been done better, but to decide if there has been any significant and serious breach of its principles.

The Waitomo News report of 31 May on the Waitomo District Council meeting of 29 May quoted a letter from opponents of the proposal that had been tabled at the meeting. Criticism of the management of the survey co-ordinated by Mr Ammon was attributed to Council officers in the opponents’ tabled letter. Mr Ammon complains that the newspaper did not respond to his request to correct the erroneous remarks he said had been made about Council officers’ views. The Press Council does not think there was any obligation on the editor to act as Mr Ammon requested. The newspaper had done no more than report what had been presented to Council. Councillor Ammon had challenged other matters in the tabled letter at the Council meeting as “lies”, and could have included comment on this aspect in his letter to the editor published on 6 June. This part of the complaint is not upheld.

On 26 June Waitomo District Council passed a resolution confirming that the loan for the development would be serviced in the manner proposed by those promoting it, i.e. with the additional rate levy capped at $20, the remainder to come from community fund-raising. Councillor Ammon’s notice of motion commented that the District Council’s earlier 29 May resolution endorsing the development was not particularly illuminating as to the loan repayment structure. He said this lack of detail may have given rise to a figure within the proposed rates strike which conflicts with the submissions in favour of the loan which were based on an annual increase of $20.

It is important to note this step in the sequence because Mr Ammon complains about the newspaper’s 3 July report of this 26 June Council meeting. He objects to the statement in that report that “Mr Ammon’s notice of motion shifted some of the blame for confusion over the loan” (to the Council). Mr Ammon believed that the newspaper was unfair in implying that he had been to blame for causing confusion. He said that it was the newspaper that had spread confusion by using the figure of $40 on 31 May as the likely rise for ratepayers, ignoring the intended contribution from community fund-raising. The Press Council notes that as early as mid-March a newsletter from the promoters had used the figure of $40 as the overall requirement, before urging the merits of fund-raising as a means of reducing the rate increase.
While the newspaper might have qualified its 31 May report to distinguish between the overall requirement of $40 and the scheme’s $20 rates plus $20 fund-raising, nothing had been finalised at that stage. The newspaper had published a letter on 6 June from another sponsor of the project clearly stating the $20 plus $20 intention. Different possible rate increases had been cited at different times, as well as different views as to whether properties or dwellings would be the basis for charging. The Press Council does not think that, read in the context of the report on the District Council’s endorsing Mr Ammon’s wish to clarify that Council’s intentions, the statement complained of bears the weight of meaning directed at him that he infers. This part of the complaint is not upheld.

Mr Ammon also objects to the newspaper report of 3 July saying “Mr Ammon said his notice of motion was aimed at “tidying up the affair”.” He alleges that the word “affair” is inappropriately used of the debt servicing arrangements he wanted clarified. We find nothing amiss in the use of the word “affair” here.

Mr Ammon complained about the treatment of his letter to the editor, published on 5 July, about that 3 July report. He objects to the beginning of the note the editor appended to his letter: “Investigation shows the article in Tuesday’s Waitomo News was accurate.” He said his letter had not accused the report of inaccuracy. Given the long history of interaction between the editor and complainant on this Marokopa project it is understandable that the editor assumed Mr Ammon must be questioning the accuracy of the newspaper’s report. The Press Council does not think this minor lapse of attention on the editor’s part requires further comment.

The fifth aspect of the complaint also relates to the handling of Mr Ammon’s letter to the editor published on 5 July. Mr Ammon had written: “A $40,000 loan over 20 years costs $4000 per year to repay.” The words “per year” were omitted in the printed letter. The editor acted promptly to print a correction, with an apology, in the next issue, but introduced a further error, by saying the loan was over two years, not twenty. Finally, on 12 July, a week after Mr Ammon’s letter had appeared, a further correction and apology put an end to the matter.

The Press Council thinks it unfortunate that these errors occurred, but does not think them of major significance in the reporting of the District Council’s decision. The headline on the 3 July report had clearly said “Council settles on $20 per year maximum for Marokopa residents”. That was the main issue that had been before the community. The errors would not have misled anyone who had followed the matter closely. They do not justify a formal censuring of the newspaper.

None of the complaint is upheld.