3 News complained about the column “From The Editor’s Desk” published in the Bay of Plenty Times on November 6, 2005. The column was headed “No media covers the Western Bay better than we do”. In reference to television coverage of a local story, the editor specifically commented on 3 News coverage. A paragraph which TV3 particularly complained about asserted: “I’m afraid to say that all that reporter did was buy a copy of Wednesday’s Bay of Plenty Times to discover all that detail and the report he brought to his viewers was to regurgitate our story while claiming it as his own.”

The Press Council has upheld the complaint.

Following the discovery of two bodies under the Wairoa River bridge in the Bay of Plenty, the Bay of Plenty Times published a detailed story about the couple and their background, and about the police murder investigation. Four days later, the regular column “From The Editor’s Desk” discussed the number of homicides in the Bay of Plenty in recent years, and newspaper and television coverage of the most recent.

Apart from comments on the standard of the journalism, the editor went on with serious accusations that television stations had simply used the Bay of Plenty Times story.

As part of the matter TV3 complained about, the editor noted that “their reporter said he had spoken to relatives of the deceased,” and “As of Wednesday afternoon there was only one person that [the source] had spoken to in relation to the murder of the couple and that was me.”

The column went on to make general complaints about TV coverage, whether running stories days after they had appeared in the local paper, while obviously waiting to source picture coverage, or failing to cover a local fatal crash or fire when “had it happened in Auckland or any of the bigger centres, the story would have run.”

The Complaint
In an email marked Letter to the Editor, 3 News’ chief of staff complained to the Bay of Plenty Times about “the very serious inference that 3 News plagiarised your newspaper in its coverage last week.
Fact 1 – My reporter did speak to relatives of the deceased.
Fact 2 – My reporter did not buy a copy of the Bay of Plenty Times that day, nor did he ‘regurgitate’ your story, nor did he ‘claim’ your story as his own.
Fact 3 – You are incorrect to state to your readers that as of Wednesday afternoon there was only one person that [the source] had spoken to… a simple fact-checking call to [her] would have established that she had spoken to my reporter before midday on Wednesday. I understand she spoke to several reporters that day.”

A heated exchange of emails between 3 News and the Bay of Plenty Times followed after that letter to the editor remained unpublished. In her complaint to the Press Council, the chief of staff expanded on the fact that [the source]

“declined an on-camera television interview but answered [the TV3 reporter’s] questions by telephone. My reporter duly reported on this conversation during our coverage that evening. I offered to supply the Editor with his cellphone records as proof the conversation had taken place. After several email exchanges, he has not published my letter, nor published a correction nor an apology.

I consider the editorial breached standards of accuracy, balance and fairness, and the decision not to publish my right of reply is also a breach of the spirit of good journalism. Our network was not contacted to comment on, or verify these inaccurate claims, before publication. To infer plagiarism is very serious, and we are very concerned about the damage to our reputation.”

After the phone records and a copy of the reporter’s notes were provided to the Press Council and seen by the editor, the editor wrote in his December 17 column “From The Editor’s Desk”

“It now seems the TV3 reporter had a three-minute conversation with [the source] after our paper had hit the streets and in that time managed to cover with her all the main detail contained in our story… So I was probably harsh in suggesting they plagiarised our copy as they insist their reporter did not buy our paper that day.
I guess it’s just coincidental that they had the same material we had and that they found [the source] in the first place as she was unknown until our paper hit the streets.
I’ll consider myself told off.”

The serious nature of the accusation in the column warrants the uphold decision in this case. The editor seems to have overlooked the fact that if the Bay of Plenty Times was able to track sources and uncover details to background the story of the day, other news organisations could do exactly the same.
He was entitled to his opinion and the Press Council has strongly supported unfettered comment in editorials and columns. “Editors are entitled to have strong opinions and to express them vigorously, even if some readers are offended and provoked by what they see as ignorant, wrong-headed or blatantly prejudiced remarks.” (Case Number: 898 Patrick McEntee Against Hawke's Bay Today ).
At the same time, the Press Council has firmly stated there is no place for blatant inaccuracy in these opinion pieces. The Council upheld a complaint where a “fundamental factual error” was the basis of an editorial view, even though the paper had published a letter from the complainant setting out the situation (Case Number: 887 Northland Regional Council Against The Northern Advocate).
Equally, where a newspaper corrected an error the day following a column which wrongly attributed a damaging statement to a government department spokesperson, the Press Council upheld the complaint. “Robust column comment should depend in the first place for its validity on the actual facts or real situation which is the basis for the opinion. [This column] blasts at the wrong target, leaving a potentially disturbing and valid comment less potent because it is wide of its real mark.” (Case Number: 792 Simon Boyce Against The Dominion)

Unlike the situation in a news story, in editorials and columns it’s clear that there is more than simply the factual mistake which can to a degree be mitigated by a correction. There remains the commentary, whose misdirected sting can linger long after any factual error has been acknowledged and corrected.

In this case, while admonishing TV3 for not backing up its statement (“You seem to think I should take your word as gospel. If I am going to correct this, I need evidence I was wrong.”) the editor hardly advanced eyewitness evidence to support his claim that “all that reporter did was to buy a copy of Wednesday’s Bay of Plenty Times … to regurgitate our story while claiming it as his own.” His source eventually changed her initial recollection of not speaking to a TV reporter.

That said, it’s common sense that media organisations watch each other’s stories, matching and developing them if necessary, scooping them where possible, picking up leads and ideas, trying to gain advantage, trumping their rivals with their own self-generated revelations. None of this should be news to an experienced editor.

The line is crossed into plagiarism where there are concerns about direct copying of a created form of words or images without permission or acknowledgement. This has to be proven precisely.

In this case, a strong accusation implying plagiarism was manifestly a presumption and wrong. The Press Council upholds the complaint on the grounds of this inaccuracy, even though the statements complained of appeared in an editorial opinion piece. The subsequent column which acknowledged this incorrect presumption was barely an adequate apology. It continued to blame the accused for not delivering enough concrete evidence quickly enough, when the editor should have questioned more thoroughly his own evidence for his original accusation.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and John Gardner.


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