Alan Cato complained about an article headed “Derby win would wipe away bitter memories” in the New Zealand Herald of December 23, 2003. The subsidiary heading was RACING: Tony Cole was devastated when blamed for poisoning his horses.

This was a difficult case with arguments both for and against the merits of the complaint about a human interest story of a horse trainer battling adversity that was built into a race preview. But even human interest stories need to observe the basic tenets of balance and here the newspaper did an incomplete job. The complaint is upheld.

The story briefly previewed the chances of the horse Philamor in the New Zealand Derby to be run on Boxing Day at Ellerslie, canvassing the history of a case of selenium poisoning of horses in the care of Philamor’s trainer Tony Cole in 2002. The story quoted only the trainer’s version of the history.

The complaint that the story lacked accuracy, fairness and balance came from Alan Cato who, with his wife Heather, owns Maximilian, one of the horses that suffered selenium poisoning.

From the information provided by the complainant, it was clear there was another side to the story, which the newspaper would have been aware of, especially as the journalist was a specialist in racing reporting.

The editor defended the story saying neither the Agriculture and Forestry ministry nor New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing had pressed charges against Mr Cole. Rather than being a relitigation of a long civil dispute the article was a human interest story about one person involved in that case. The editor asserted that the newspaper had reported the broad issues, the inquiries and allegations over the selenium case over the past two years fairly and in a balanced fashion. But Mr Cato responded that the Herald's racing correspondent was the only one from the major daily newspapers not to establish direct contact with the Catos to ascertain “our side” of the story.

The Press Council believes the editor was correct when he wrote in reply to Mr Cato that this was a distressing matter for all concerned. But where other parties are affected adversely in a complicated and contentious story - and have another version - it would be naturally fair and balanced, even within a single story, to acknowledge that there is another side.

When newspapers in the course of an article refer to a many-layered story with an extended history, editors need to be aware that, while different interpretations of the past can be reported, the facts remain unvarnished.

The complaint is upheld.

Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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