AARON LETCHER AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESThe Press Council has upheld, by a majority of 8:3, a complaint against the Waikato Times over a front page report of a claim that Young Nationals had bought hundreds of copies of the book Dirty Politics, intending to burn them.
Aaron Letcher, president of the Waikato University Students’ Union and a former member of Young Nationals, complained that the story was factually wrong, unsubstantiated, based entirely on rumour and damaging to him.
The story was spread across the front page on August 21, eight days after the publication of the book which alleged collusion between the Prime Minister’s Office and an aggressive online blog. The report was accompanied by a graphic illustration of books being set alight and it cited “rumour” that Mr Letcher had bought 202 copies to burn.
The rumour had originated on the Facebook page of a person identified as the NZ First Youth leader. The Waikato Times reported that it also had confirmation from “a Waikato University source who asked not to be named”. It said the student had seen the books in Mr Letcher’s possession and understood he had been given money from someone in the National Party to buy them.
Mr Letcher told the Press Council that when contacted by the reporter he had assured her the rumour was not true, as did a number of other people she approached. The suggestion that the party would buy books to burn them was ridiculous.
Fairfax Media Regional Editor Wayne Timmo said the Waikato Times stood by the substance of its story. It was reporting allegations, not stating as fact that Mr Letcher was involved in plans for book burning. Mr Letcher’s denial had been given prominence.
Mr Letcher’s belief that his denial should have prevented publication was, in Mr Timmo’s view, “dangerous to robust reporting of political issues our democracy requires to function”. There were many denials of matters raised in the book Dirty Politics but those denials had not prevented them being reported.
As president of a students’ union and a member of the Young Nationals, Mr Letcher should expect allegations raised about him to receive coverage.
The Times did not base stories solely on social media but those media often provided tips or starting points for stories. In this case the allegation on social media was supported by a source the Times considered credible and agreed not to name, which is standard practice for news organisations.
The Press Council recognises that social media are a frequent source of information that can be checked and developed into stories capable of meeting the standards of accuracy, fairness and balance expected by readers of a reliable newspaper.
In this case the Council does not believe the newspaper had sufficient corroboration of the claim on Facebook. The Times’ additional source, a student who would not be named, claimed to have seen Mr Letcher with more than 200 books. If that statement were true, it does not establish that Mr Letcher intended to burn them.
The Facebook posting as reported by the Times, said, “So apparently the CNI Young Nats (and presumably the NZ Young Nats) are buying up copies of Nicky Hager’s # Dirty Politics....and burning them.” The word “apparently” should be noted. It suggests the information was at best hearsay, at worst an assumption by a person associated with a rival political party.
The Times called it “rumour” but its report also claimed to have confirmed part of the rumour. It is therefore difficult to accept the Regional Editor's response that the paper was merely reporting an allegation. Its confidence in its own source and its decision to splash the book burning allegation across its front page would have given the story credibility in the minds of some readers.
While Mr Letcher’s denial was also reported prominently, this does not redeem the report. Newspapers need to be careful when dealing with rumour that is denied. A false accusation can easily be made for the purpose of forcing a political opponent to deny it publicly. That indeed is said to be a device of “dirty politics”. Newspapers should take care to ensure they are not unwitting instruments of it.
The WaikatoTimes could not substantiate this rumour to a standard that meets the Press Council’s principles of accuracy and fairness. Mr Letcher’s complaint is upheld.
Three members of the Press Council Liz Brown, Sandy Gill and Peter Fa’afiu would not have upheld the complaint. They noted that the article was balanced; two sources had been cited; the reporter had gone to Mr Letcher for his denial; two MPs had spoken as to the good character of Mr Letcher. They expressed some concern at the front-page treatment, and the subsequent articles referring to the initial story, but on balance would not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members upholding the complaint were Chris Darlow (Acting Chair), Tim Beaglehole, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
Press Council members who would not have upheld the complaint were Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu and Sandy Gill.