TAHU TAIA AGANIST OPOTIKI NEWS

Case Number: 1016

Council Meeting: MAY 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Opotiki News

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of

Mr Tahu Taia, the Secretary of the Whakatohea Maori Trust Board, complains (in a private capacity) about an article in the Opotiki News on 3 February 2005. Specifically, he complains that the headline “Snubbed trustees call for removal of secretary” and the accompanying photograph of him combined to compromise his position of employment and that the article was so unbalanced as to be unfair. He maintained that he was not offered any opportunity to respond to allegations which he described as targeting him in a rather libellous manner. He also complained that the article failed to distinguish between fact, conjecture and opinion.

His complaint is not upheld.

The editor of the newspaper provided responses both to Mr Taia personally and to the Council. The editor advised that Mr Taia had been given the opportunity to discuss this matter with him in a telephone call on 3 February 2005 but Mr Taia had failed to avail himself of that opportunity. He explained that the intention of the article was to report on the call by some trustees for Mr Taia’s resignation and because the article did not comment on those calls, the editor did not consider it to be necessary to invite Mr Taia to immediately respond. Even had he done so (which he did not), there would have been an additional difficulty in relation to seeking a response from Mr Taia. The editor advised the Council of a pre-existing arrangement between Mr Taia and the newspaper which required that communications between these two parties take place via a second nominated reporter. This arrangement arose because Mr Taia’s employer had “blacklisted” one of the two employed reporters in the newspaper and had directed its staff that there was to be no communication with him at any time. The ‘blacklisted’ reporter was the person responsible for the report about which Mr Taia now complains so in terms of the arrangement earlier reached, there were attendant difficulties in his ability to seek any comment by way of reply.

The editor advised that in line with the pre-existing arrangement, he had requested the nominated reporter to make contact with Mr Taia the day following publication of the article complained of. The editor’s intention with this directive was to invite Mr Taia to provide his observations on the calls being made by the group of trustees and to use Mr Taia’s response as a follow-up story.

Mr Taia failed to make explicit the alleged “detrimental effect on his employment”. The editor was unable to respond to this allegation except in general terms. He indicates that Mr Taia’s employment was in some measure of jeopardy as a consequence of the calls being made by the four trustees irrespective of whether Opotiki News reported on their calls or not.

The editor rejects the claim that its report was “conjecture” or “opinion” by the newspaper. He maintains that the opinions expressed were worthy of reporting. Further, the editor rejects any claim that the newspaper treats either Mr Taia or his employer with an “hostile attitude”.

The Council commends Mr Dawson on the helpful and timely response he has provided to the Council. It is apparent from that response that he has gone to most unusual lengths for a newspaper editor in seeking to accommodate Whakatohea Maori Trust Board sensitivities concerning its communication with Opotiki News staff.

The Council observes that in August 2004 the Maori Affairs Minister instigated a ministerial inquiry into the management of the Whakatohea Maori Trust Board. The inquiry recommendations included a direction that the Whakatohea Maori Trust Board hold full board meetings monthly. The Minister announced that he would be reviewing the situation on a month by month basis. There is no doubt that the story is an important one and, particularly so, in the Opotiki region. The article complained about reports on the facts of a proposed action and reports the opinions of one of the trustees on how the Board could implement a new style of governance. It reports on the group’s intentions to seek a dissolution of the iwi’s executive and asset management committee and on its call for the removal of Mr Taia from his position as secretary.

The Council finds nothing in the article complained of which offends against the principles of the Council. Mr Taia was provided with an opportunity to respond and failed to utilise this. His employer’s stance in blacklisting one reporter from the newspaper may have been, in this instance, a factor which exacerbated the situation which has now displeased Mr Taia. That is not, however, of the newspaper’s making.

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