PETER GLENSOR AGAINST WAINUIOMATA NEWS

Case Number: 732

Council Meeting: March 1999

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Wainuiomata News

The Press Council has found the Wainuiomata News acted unethically in restricting its major coverage of last year’s local body elections to paid advertising features and breached a specific agreement with Peter Glensor to label his material as an advertisement.

Mr Glensor, a candidate for the Hutt City mayoralty and council, had complained to the Press Council about his treatment by the newspaper. In his complaint Mr Glensor said he had been approached by the Wainuiomata News to place material in an advertising feature in its issue of 24 September. He could place a smaller written piece for $75 or a larger piece for $150.

After receiving a specific assurance the piece would clearly be labelled as an advertisement, he agreed to buy the $150 space. When the feature appeared, including statements from other candidates, there was no advertising logo to make it clear to readers that the feature was an advertisement. It appeared to be an editorial feature.

Mr Glensor complained to the Council that a direct promise to him had been broken. He also said there were implications for candidates unwilling or unable to pay for advertising and that the separation between advertising and editorial was being dangerously blurred.

In response, Graham Vincent, the general manager of Capital Community Newspapers, the publishers of Wainuiomata News, said it had been the intention of the paper to label the piece as an advertising supplement. Because of higher page numbers and the pressures of the election, the election feature notice was left off. Mr Vincent maintained it did, however, appear in other community papers published by the company.

Mr Vincent said the company had made a commercial decision and candidates were approached to participate in the advertising feature. They were advised this would be the paper’s major coverage of the election.

There was no intention of blurring the line between editorial and advertising, he said. The company’s concern was to offer all candidates a level playing field and remove journalists’ bias from the coverage. He believed the paper’s approach had been fair and reasonable – Mr Glensor had got the coverage he paid for.

Later Mr Vincent supplied a copy of the Cook Strait News , also published by his company, as an example of how the election feature should have been labelled. Yet the Cook Strait News did not label its election coverage as an advertising feature. It simply listed those candidates who did not participate in the election feature.

The Press Council upheld the complaint on two separate, but related grounds.

First, the Council finds that the Wainuiomata News gave to Mr Glensor a specific promise to label his published material as an advertisement and thereby breached its agreement with him. It was of importance to Mr Glensor that the public would be able to observe that he was prepared to spend his own money to convey his electoral message to the public. Not to label such material as an advertisement, appeared to be a deliberate practice as evidenced by the treatment accorded similar material in the Cook Strait News.

The fact that is was an editorial practice leads to the second ground. The decision to cover the local body election only by paid advertisement breaches the traditional ethic of journalism to maintain a separation between the editorial side of a newspaper publication and the business side. The separation of those two sides has sometimes been described as having a wall between them.

To blur the separation is likely to lead to the erosion of editorial independence of newspapers, and will compromise the integrity of the information which readers must be able to expect of the editorial sections. Confusion of the roles of editorial and advertising also sets the dangerous precedent of using the high standards of autonomy which underpin editorial content to give a spurious authority to the content of what is advertised.

In 1992, the Council received a similar complaint about the Franklin County News which had also required candidates to pay for their coverage. The Council then described the conduct as “unethical and a breach of good journalistic practice.”

The conduct of Wainuiomata News was no different. Making publication dependent on the candidates buying advertising was unfair, particularly on those unable or unwilling to pay.

The Council found in 1992 that ‘the Franklin County News completely abrogated its responsibility to provide full and fair coverage of an important local event.’ The same judgment applies in this case to the Wainuiomata News.

While Mr Glensor’s complaint relates specifically to Wainuiomata News the Council’s concerns apply to the other papers published by Capital Community Newspapers