A.McLAY AGAINST THE OAMARU MAIL

Case Number: 727

Council Meeting: February 1999

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Oamaru Mail

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by A.S.McLay against the Oamaru Mail. The complaint related to a letter published in the paper on 16 September.

The previous week the Oamaru Mail had run a coupon inviting readers to vote for one of two preferred sites for a local swimming pool. On the coupon it stated “We ask for your names and addresses (these will not be published.)”

Mr McLay completed his coupon and attached a small pad page with some comments on it, which he regarded as “tongue-in-cheek and provocative. The comments were then published, as a letter, with his name and this had caused considerable embarrassment.

Mr McLay intended to make a comment in conjunction with the coupon and believed that his name would not be published in accordance with the promise of confidentiality on the coupon. The paper did not contact him to discuss his comments or to seek his permission in relation to publishing a letter to the editor under his name. In his letter to the Council he made the point that the page of notes did not include his signature, address or phone number. These are requirements to be followed for letters to the editor of the Oamaru Mail. Mr McLay also commented that the newspaper had been publishing comments from members of the public in relation to the swimming pool issue and that the names of the people offering those comments were not published.

The editor said the name and address had come from the coupon and she thought when she received the letter from a staff member that it was not for publication. The editor agreed the newspaper had made a mistake in publishing Mr McLay’s name with the letter and emphasised that she and her staff made an attempt to express their regret for the error by leaving a message with Mr McLay’s wife.

The Oamaru Mail agreed to keep the identity of the people who returned the survey coupons confidential. Given the commitment to confidentiality the paper should have been more vigilant than usual in checking that the name and identity of the writer were not published. Confidentiality sometimes encourages contributors to be more frank and controversial than if their identities were to be published. On occasion this can lead to a lively debate and this is not to be discouraged. However the commitment to keep identity confidential should be paramount, and in not checking the intent of the writer the Oamaru Mail made an error of judgment.

The newspaper should have made a direct apology to Mr McLay. This would have avoided any miscommunication in the passing of a message. It was a serious ,matter for Mr McLay and the newspaper treated it rather too lightly by not communicating directly with him before or after publication.

The complaint is upheld.