R.L. CLOUGH AGAINST THE OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 780

Council Meeting: May 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Editorial Discretion
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint about coverage in the Otago Daily Times of celebrations to mark the arrival of the new millennium in the Chatham Islands.

R.L.Clough, an elected member of the Chatham Islands Millennium Trust established to organise and co-ordinate millennium celebrations complained to the Council about the content of an article published on 2 January in a special millennium edition of the paper. The article, he said, purported to cover the celebrations on the Chatham Islands. In his opinion 40 per cent of it was "an extremely brief, error-riddled description of a minority of events. The remaining 60 per cent consisted of the doings of two drunks."

Mr Clough made no secret of his dismay that "much planning, rehearsals and hard work, as well as considerable sacrifice of valuable time" by the people of the Chathams had been poorly rewarded by inadequate newspaper coverage. It was reasonable to assume, he asserted, that "these world-first millennium-first events would merit some attention from our national news media. It was galling to see all our efforts ignored and for the Otago Daily Times to depict Chatham Islands as a place where the most important and newsworthy events were the doings of two drunks."

The Press Council recognises these comments as a cry from the heart of an isolated community concerned to present itself to advantage to the wider world. The Council, however, is not able to judge whether such expectations as the Chatham Islands community may have had of extensive coverage of their millennium celebrations were justified or not. The Council's role is to determine whether newspapers and their staff in their coverage of events confirm to standards of ethical journalism.

The article is question was drawn from NZPA reports. It appeared under a headline "Millennium sunrise? It's the Pitts" an unnecessary pun on the name of the second and smaller island of the Chathams group which, the article noted, was the "first inhabited land to see the sun each day." The content was, as Mr Clough noted, mainly devoted to the antics of two members of the Chathams community, the worse for wear following their own personal New Year celebrations. The organised events were reported in one sentence - "Children danced and Maori sang in a moving dawn ceremony welcoming the sun and the new millennium." It would be easy to interpret the report as depicting the Chathams as a provincial and rough-and-ready sort of place.

The editor of the newspaper, in reply noted there were two articles about the Chathams in the special edition (which Mr Clough had acknowledged) both drawn from NZPA reports, plus a large photograph. The second article concerned a dispute over TV services to the people on Pitt Island. The editor noted the newspaper had not sent a correspondent to the islands, the special edition attempted a global coverage of millennium events in the restricted space of 24 pages. He asserted his right as editor to present coverage in the way he thought fit. The Press Council, for its part, takes this right as beyond question.

The editor went on to note that as soon as Mr Clough had complained he was offered the opportunity of recourse through the newspaper columns and was allocated space to state his case. Mr Clough duly wrote an article, which he believed would be published under the heading "Opinion." In the event, he was dismayed to find his article abridged to 200 words and given space as a letter to the editor.

The central principle is that the editor has the responsibility to the newspaper's publishers and to the public for arrangement of material. Mr Clough was offered space to write in support of his assertion that the events organised on the Islands to mark the millennium deserved fuller coverage. He took up that offer and the Council cannot detect any unfairness on the part of the editor.

The complaint is not upheld.