STRATFORD RACING CLUB AGAINST THE DAILY NEWS

Case Number: 1003

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Daily News

Ruling Categories: Bias

A complaint has been lodged by the Stratford Racing Club (Inc) against The Daily News about a by-lined article appearing in the 5 July 2004 edition of the newspaper. The article was written by the newspaper’s racing journalist, Tony Bird, under the heading “Inquiry to look at Stratford club”. The letter of complaint was signed by the Club President and Vice-President.

The complaint is not upheld.

The terms of the complaint in a letter dated 15 July 2004 contain “The latest source of indignation….” and then refer to the article of 5 July. Such a statement clearly enough flags that the real issues for complaint are about what happened in prior years about which no complaint was made. The details of the complaint about this article are few. A reported statement about Constitutional changes of Guy Sargent, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Chairman, is called a lie. Constitutional changes were in the past proposed. However that is a minor issue compared with others that have arisen and need not detain us. The real substance of the grievance is about what was said in the newspaper in previous years.

The formal complaint about the 5 July 2004 article is made seemingly to bring itself within the Rules of the Press Council that a complaint must be lodged within 3 months of publication, or it is out of time. The essence of the article of 5 July was to report that New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing had established an independent committee to inquire into the affairs of the Stratford Racing Club. The article complained about is non-inflammatory and briefly recapitulates the trials and tribulations of the Club, over many years. It made mention of some of the central issues of conflict such as deliberate exclusion by the Club management of apparently otherwise acceptable applications for membership. The article mentioned the constitutional changes referred to above. Also that there had been a previous investigation into the affairs of the Club. From the copious material supplied with this complaint these are simply matters of fact about which there is no doubt of the occurrence of the facts.

It is indisputable that the real grievance of the SRC is that the newspaper had in the past published material and written editorials (September and October 2002) highly critical of the conduct of the Club’s affairs by its management. Particularly for refusing membership applications from persons who would have been acceptable in other racing clubs. The clear implication was that these refusals stemmed from fear that the new members would challenge the authority of the present management. There was also the proposal to change the constitution that the Club said was only lost by a single vote not by a wide margin as reported. In the context of the main issues one of which is so-called “blackballing” this is a minor matter. Apparently the proposals of the Club about training fees had stirred up resentment.

In 2002, or after, the SRC did not respond to the newspaper itself or take any other steps to complain about its treatment at the hands of the newspaper.

The central issue of the complaint is that the Club says the newspaper over the years has been biased in its published items on the Club’s activities. By alleging bias the Club clearly implies unfairness and prejudice in its reporting. The editor in a reply to the Club does not deny the reporting, “…does appear to paint a damning picture of bias in our coverage of recent issues involving your club.” but argues the facts justify such reporting. Looking at the situation objectively, especially noting the past failure of the Club to complain, the Council believes the criticisms of the Club by the newspaper were allowable and were not in any sense “biased” by being unfair and prejudiced.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the management of the SRC was galvanised into the action of complaining to the Press Council after the news was released on 5 July that New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing had decided to establish an independent inquiry into the Club’s affairs. That Committee received quite wide-ranging terms of reference and did inquire into the affairs of the Club and reported to NZTR in a Report dated 2 September 2004. The Report was highly critical of the past conduct of the Club. Notwithstanding the Report the SRC has continued with the complaint to the Press Council.

In several recent adjudications the Press Council has firmly said that it is not its function to examine in detail a dispute of the magnitude of this one. See Immunisation Advisory Centre and Investigate Magazine Case No. 847, 2001. In any event that Inquiry has been completed and produced a 38 page Report with 3 pages of Recommendations. The SRC did not take any part in the Inquiry and we have been informed does not acknowledge the validity of the Report.

The complaint is not upheld.