SARAH SPARKS AGAINST EAST AND BAYS COURIER

Case Number: 884

Council Meeting: MAY 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: East & Bays Courier

Ruling Categories: Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge

An Auckland-based public relations consultant, Sarah Sparks of Markom Ltd, has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about an article in the East and Bays Courier.

Ms Sparks, who acts for Landco, a company that has bought a quarry site in Mt Wellington, was upset at what she saw as subterfuge used by a Courier journalist to elicit information for an article published in the twice-weekly community newspaper on February 5. Her complaint was that the reporter rang her using the pretext of verifying the spelling of her name when, in fact, the reporter was gleaning information for an article that was published a few days later.

The complainant accused the Courier of deceptive practice and operating under false pretences. She also chided the paper’s editor, Teresa O’Connor, for not contacting her over the complaint, saying that Ms O’Connor’s having left a message with Ms Sparks’s secretary for Ms Sparks to return her call was not sufficient.

Courier editor Teresa O’Connor stoutly defended the newspaper and the reporter. While the paper agreed with Press Council Principles about when publications are permitted to resort to subterfuge, she said, such a tactic had not been used on this occasion.

The editor said that Ms Sparks had been interviewed nearly three weeks earlier for the article about the closure of the Mt Wellington quarry. However, a conscientious reporter had stewed over whether she had the spelling of Ms Sparks’s name correct and had rung to confirm her information.

Ms O’Connor also said that she believed leaving a message with Ms Sparks’s secretary when she couldn’t reach the PR woman herself was normal practice.

The Press Council said that this complaint was clearly of the “he said, she said” variety, which left it in a position of having to decide which party’s claims it preferred. In this case, the Council said, it had opted for the Courier’s version of events.

The Council observed that to it, as a neutral third party, the article appeared to be a standard update on a matter of public interest. The comments attributed to Ms Sparks were uncontroversial and she had not disputed their accuracy. She had, on the other hand, objected to be quoted at all, at least in her initial letter to the Council, on the basis that she had been “duped”, to use her phrase.

Information provided to the Council by the newspaper showed that this was unlikely.

The complaint was not upheld.