ROBIN GWYNN AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 1000

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Dr Robin Gwynn complained about the Hawke’s Bay Today’s coverage of the 2004 local body elections, in particular, that the newspaper had failed to observe the principle requiring accuracy, fairness and balance.

The complaint is not upheld.

Dr Gwynn’s complaint, although broad in its scope, was confined to the election coverage. It was founded primarily on what he perceived to be omissions in the newspaper’s reports of the election campaigns, a matter about which Dr Gwynn had personal knowledge, because he was a candidate for the Napier City mayoralty and the local council.

His specific complaints included the claims that the newspaper failed to report on candidates’ meetings, closed its letters column to candidates (subject to one exception), ignored media releases, restricted comment by candidates to set topics identified by the newspaper, made inaccurate editorial assertions about the elections, failed to afford candidates any real opportunity to advance their own policies or ideas, and reported the campaigns in a personality-based manner rather than an issue-based manner.

The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today rejected Dr Gwynn’s criticisms and maintained that the newspaper’s election coverage was fair and unbiased. He suggested that Dr Gwynn may have been disappointed because he had an “unrealistic expectation” of a newspaper.

Dr Gwynn provided the Council with considerable material which he maintained supported his claims. This material included copies of press releases issued by Dr Gwynn to the newspaper, academic comment on the polling undertaken by the newspaper, comparative data for two other newspapers’ coverage of the local body election, as well as the correspondence between Dr Gwynn and the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today.

In addition, two other people wrote independently to the Council and voiced their support of the complaint made by Dr Gwynn. Each of these correspondents expressed their own concerns about what they perceived to be a lack of balance and/or bias in the coverage of local body politics in Hawke’s Bay Today. The Council referred their comments to each of the parties to the adjudication. The editor of the newspaper claimed that each correspondent was disaffected with his newspaper and he took the position that their letters were of no relevance to this case. While it is apparent to the Council that there is some ‘disaffection’, the Council does, nevertheless, see the letters as having some, albeit limited, relevance.

In support of his complaint, Dr Gwynn also appeared in person before the Council and skillfully presented his case. He endeavoured to introduce further correspondence to the Council notwithstanding earlier advice that it was not open for him to do so. The Council records that those documents were not taken into account in any way in this adjudication.

Dr Gwynn acknowledged that none of the specifics of his complaint, in itself, sufficed to make out a breach of the Council’s principles. He agreed that it was the cumulative effect which resulted in the breach he alleged. His complaint in this regard is an unusual one and is made even more so by the fact that he relies primarily on what he perceived as “omissions” by the newspaper. The poll complaint was the exception. It was apparent that Dr Gwynn felt aggrieved by the coverage given to his not inconsiderable efforts and that he felt the electors in his region had been given insufficient information through Hawke’s Bay Today to enable them to make an informed choice when casting their votes.

However, it is not the role of the Council to determine what is newsworthy or what angle a particular newspaper should take on any story. That is entirely a matter for the editor to determine. The Statement of Principles is clear that publications (newspapers and magazines) should be guided by at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In the judgment of the Press Council, Hawke’s Bay Today did not breach that principle. It is the editor’s prerogative to ignore press releases issued by a candidate and that prerogative extends to cover even those press releases which might appear to someone else to be particularly newsworthy.

It follows from the same point, that there can be no requirement to attend candidate meetings held in a newspaper’s region. Similarly, it is open for editors to determine the policy regarding candidates’ letters during election campaigns and to determine what profiles (if any) they might give to candidates. There is no requirement on editors to allow space in their newspapers for candidates to air their own campaigns and editorial comment is a matter entirely for the editors to determine. Editors can choose to report the elections as they determine. A failure by a newspaper to set out a poll’s margins of error is not necessarily fatal to its election coverage as a whole. Some other aspects of the poll could be validly criticised, but no more.

Newspapers are not a uniform group and nor are their readers. What occurs in one region is not indicative of what should occur in other regions. The differences might be surprising, but nevertheless the Council supports the right of editors to decide the type of coverage given in their regions.

Given Council’s rejection of the specific complaints, it follows that the Council does not find them cumulatively to make out a breach of the Press Council principles.

Dr Gwynn’s complaint is not upheld.

Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.