STEVE BLAKEMORE AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Case Number: 1009

Council Meeting: MARCH 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Misleading
Sensationalism

Mr Steve Blakemore has laid a complaint against the Wairarapa Times-Age about the front-page article published in its 30 December 2004 edition. The article is under a headline “Giant waves off Palliser” with a relatively large photograph of the source of the story of wave sighting, Mr Tory Castle. The complaint of Mr Blakemore is that “…the headline and story were misleading and unjustified sensationalism”. It is alleged the newspaper was exploiting the Asian tsunami event, which occurred 20 hours after the supposed sighting, by Mr Castle. Mr Blakemore also complains that a letter he wrote to the editor and hand delivered to the office on January 3 2005 has never been published.

The complaints are not upheld.

Dealing first with the contents of the article apart from the headline. The story is that Mr Castle accompanied by his three teen-age sons were in a motor vehicle driving along Cape Palliser Road at about 5.30pm on Christmas Day when his attention was drawn to the behaviour of the sea on the horizon. He stopped his car to get a better look and his account as contained in the article as to what he saw was “…giant waves building and building. The sea was fairly flat all round, but they stood out like a ship on the horizon…. They were just massive. They were as tall as ships. You couldn’t help but see them. They were big and steep.” The paper reported that Mr Castle knew what he had seen was a remarkable sight and put it down to “…the tide going out and a big swell.”

There was no attempt in that story to link the event with the Asian tsunami although that event was mentioned.

Other relevant matters contained in the article were that the Harbour Control Station in Wellington confirmed that there had not been reported any unusual event as described by Mr Castle. The article also said Mr Castle was a “man of the sea” and that he adhered to what he reported as seeing.

The problem is that the headline standing alone is a statement that avers there were giant waves off Palliser when the article reports it simply as the sighting of one man,
and uncorroborated.

The Council fairly regularly has had to deal with complaints about headlines. The reason is that headlines use language in a materially different way from ordinary prose. It is universally understood that a headline in a newspaper must be condensed and terse, often not bound by ordinary grammar, but it still must not mislead as to the contents of the article beneath it. Most readers regard the headline as a pointer to what is contained in the article. A headline cannot be judged solely as a stand alone set of words without reference to the article.

In this case the Council is satisfied that the headline plus the article leaves no-one in doubt that it was one man who said he witnessed an unusual phenomenon of wave behaviour and leaves the readers to decide the accuracy or likelihood of the event in the light of the countervailing information contained in the article. There is no evidence to say categorically that what Mr Castle said he saw was wrong.

Mr Blakemore complains his letter to the editor was not published. The Council has always said that the decision to publish or not is that of the editor but Mr Blakemore’s complaint is understandable as the editor said he would publish it but that owing to industrial trouble it was overlooked. The complainant has had the benefit with this adjudication of having his complaint dealt with on the merits and the Council makes no finding against the newspaper about non-publication.

The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Murray Williams, Keith Lees and Terry Snow.