STEVEN COURTNEY AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Case Number: 957

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy

Steven Courteney of Masterton complained about two articles in the Wairarapa Times-Age on 7 and 20 June 2003. He contended that the original story was obtained by ‘subterfuge’ and contained inaccuracies; the headline was incorrect; moreover the newspaper failed to publish an adequate retraction and apology; the second story too contained an inaccuracy

The complaint is upheld.

Mr Courtney is a consultant geologist with wide experience around the world in petroleum exploration. Earlier this year he wrote to the Mayor of Masterton and the editor of the Times-Age suggesting the need for caution about the prospects of discovery of a major find of oil or gas as a result of seismic survey work off the Wairarapa coast. In his view no promising indicators of large-scale deposits had so far been discerned.

A journalist approached Mr Courteney, at the suggestion of the editor, requesting an interview. Mr Courteney’s understanding was that the focus was to be on the family’s experiences in the petroleum industry working around the world. The editor stressed however that the purpose was to “traverse the prospects of an oil strike off the Wairarapa coast…. A human interest story never figured in this at all.” Mr Courteney noted nevertheless that the reporter had taken no interest in an overview of Wairarapa petroleum geology which he had prepared. The Press Council comments that some understanding of the geological evidence would seem to be indispensable to a report on prospects of an oil strike.

The Times-Age coverage of the interview, published on Saturday 7 June, presented two largely opposing views about petroleum prospects along the east coast. Under a headline ‘Oil and gas in coastal rock debated’, Mr Courteney’s contention that “there is no infrastructure in the Wairarapa area which would point to a field of economic size” was set against that of another geologist who suggested that the “geological situation” was quite promising. This approach raised a question of fairness. An interviewee needs to know the premises on which an opposing argument is based. This is especially the case where the argument is about scientific evidence which will, by definition, always call for careful analysis and interpretation. Moreover, as the editor admitted, the headline was misleading in that a presentation of two opposing views, with neither party able to question the assertions of the other, can hardly be described as a debate.

The nub of Mr Courteney’s complaint was however the attribution to him of a statement that: “He has a sneaking suspicion that the hoopla surrounding the offshore Castlepoint hunt is driven from the United States for a rather sinister reason. The companies involved in the search are relatively small fry on the international scene he says. In the United States it helps companies to attract shareholders by having the razzmatazz of oil searches in other countries. New Zealand is a nice, safe place to have an overseas venture. It’s not a danger spot and being able to say you are doing some work out here helps to bolster share prices.”

Mr Courteney at once communicated his concerns to the editor. He denied that he had said such a thing, insisting “these are (the reporter’s) words, his opinions and his thoughts”. He had discussed “wheeling and dealing” by some companies in South East Asia and related that to an earlier onshore survey in the Wairarapa which left a lot of local people “owed large amounts of money”. There was a significant difference between those programmes and the activities of the company currently operating offshore. The Press Council accepts that Mr Courteney would have had no cause whatsoever to make the assertions attributed to him in the context of the current survey work. As he pointed out, the only company operating in the Castlepoint area “is one of my clients, is not publicly listed and not planning to be publicly listed.” There could accordingly be no question of activities designed to “attract shareholders or bolster share prices”. He asked that the newspaper retract – and print an apology both to himself and to Westech, the company concerned.

Mr Courteney submitted a revised version of the 7 June article as what he termed a ‘correction’. The newspaper published the key elements, essentially word-for-word, on 10 June, in the form of a letter from Mr Courteney . This piece addressed an inaccuracy in the first article, and put Mr Courteney’s position in relation to oil exploration in the Wairarapa region in a rather more positive light. It did not expressly disavow the “sneaking suspicion” statement, but rather used more generalised words Mr Courteney himself had supplied.

Mr Courteney pressed his claim for a retraction and apology, making it plain that the report of the “sneaking suspicion” remark had caused him problems with a client. The editor tried again on 20 June, by reprinting, in its entirety and in italics, the remarks to which Mr Courteney had objected, with a brief explanation that the reference had been to “wheeling and dealing” in South East Asia and to “possible scenarios behind the ill-fated onshore exploration in Wairarapa” – not to the company now operating the offshore permit, Westech New Zealand. The headline was “Oil Story Clarified” and the opening sentence read “Masterton Geologist Steven Courteney has asked the Times-Age to clarify part of a feature, published on 7 June, on Wairarapa oil exploration”.

A clarification, however, is not a retraction, let alone an apology. Mr Courteney, a professional scientist working in a field of more than passing economic importance to the

Wairarapa, was entitled to more consideration. He had volunteered to help elucidate complex issues and found his credentials and professional standing jeopardised by a statement which he forthrightly disowned. The Wairarapa Times-Age owed him and Westech an apology.

Press Council upholds the complaint.