The Press Council has upheld one complaint by Alan McRobie against the Northern Outlook over reports about the setting of building consent fees by a Waimakariri District Council committee. It has not upheld a second complaint concerning the use of a press release.

Former Waimakariri District councillor Alan McRobie has made two complaints about the accuracy of reports published in the Northern Outlook between July and September last year. The first complaint concerns its coverage of the Council’s Resource Management and Regulation Committee’s deliberations concerning the setting of consent fees for solar water heating installation.

A second complaint involves the use of a comment published from a press release issued by Mr McRobie. He has also taken issue with the newspaper for its failure to respond to his complaints.

The complaints
Mr McRobie’s first complaint starts with a report of the Council’s Resource Management and Regulation Committee meeting on 17 July 2007. The Committee was considering a council officer’s report recommending that it introduce a set fee of $385 for building consents for the installation of solar water heating systems.

The committee’s decision, as recorded in the minutes, was that the report lie on the table and be referred back to all the council’s ward advisory boards for their comments.

The report of the meeting that appeared in the Northern Outlook on 25 July said the committee had agreed to lower its building consent fees to $385.

Mr McRobie, at the time a Waimakariri District Councillor and member of the Resource Management and Regulation Committee, contacted the newspaper to point out that its report was wrong and inform them of the Committee’s decision to seek comment from the boards. He said the reporter was not present at the meeting and had relied on the officer’s report.

A further report was then published by the Northern Outlook on 28 July saying that a decision to reduce consent fees had been deferred until the matter could be referred to the Rangiora Ward Advisory Board for comment.

Mr McRobie says the second report was also incorrect in that it failed to say that the issue was being referred to all the advisory boards. Nor did the second report indicate that it was a correction of the earlier report.

On September 11, the issue of building consents for solar water heating installations came back to the committee with the recommendations of the advisory boards. At this meeting, the committee deferred its decision to allow the council to first review its user-pays policy for building consents.

On 15 September, Northern Outlook reported that the council “has shied away again from setting consent fees”, a view Mr McRobie rejected. He said a decision to defer was not the same thing as avoiding the issue, which was implied by the newspaper report.

Mr McRobie’s second complaint concerns a press release he issued on 16 August 2007 questioning the judgment of a mayoral candidate. The Northern Outlook did not use the press release in the form that McRobie drafted it, but instead drew a comment from it, concerning another candidate, to use in a story about a potential conflict of interest involving that candidate. That story was published on 25 August.

He says the newspaper extracted one comment from the press release “to bolster another, unrelated story”. In his view, this was improper and unethical.

The newspaper’s response
Concerning the first complaint, the Northern Outlook editor says a reporter was present at the 17 July meeting last year when the Council’s Resource Management and Regulation Committee considered a report recommending a set fee for solar water heating installations.

When Mr McRobie contacted the newspaper to draw attention to the misreporting, a correction was promptly published in a prominent position. The fact that the report referred only to the Rangiora Ward Advisory Board was because it had been difficult to ascertain how many boards were to be asked to comment, and the Rangiora board had raised the issue with the council.

When the matter again came back to the committee, the Northern Outlook reported the committee’s decision in a report on 15 September stating that the “Waimakariri District Council has shied away again from setting consent fees for solar hot water heating systems”. The editor says the report accurately reflected the meeting’s decision to defer the matter again. Its use of the phrase “shied away” implies something has been delayed or deferred, which was the case.

As to Mr McRobie’s second complaint, the editor says it is standard practice to filter press statement for newsworthy information.

In this case, Mr McRobie’s press statement mentioned a potential conflict of interest involving a Kaiapoi Ward candidate, who was also employed as a journalist for a local newspaper. The Northern Outlook had been following the issue and included Mr McRobie’s comment in a report published on 25 August focusing on the view of a Local Government New Zealand manager on the potential conflict.

The editor says the reporter was in contact with Mr McRobie regarding his statement before and after the 25 August report was published. She says Mr McRobie’s comment from the press statement was published accurately and was a true representation of his view.

The editor agrees that the comment was not used in the context of the press statement itself but, as it was not incorrect or not his opinion, she did not publish a correction.

She apologised for her failure to respond to Mr McRobie’s letter of complaint, believing, as other issues had intervened, that he was not pursuing it.

On the matter of the first complaint, the Northern Outlook responded to Mr McRobie’s objection to its incorrect report on 25 July, by publishing a follow-up report on 28 July. The first report, saying the Waimakariri District Council had introduced a set fee for solar water heating installations, was clearly incorrect. The second report correctly recorded that the decision on the fee had been deferred while other views were sought. It, however, wrongly said the views being sought were those of the Rangiora Ward Advisory Board when all the other ward advisory boards were being asked to comment.

The Press Council accepts that the newspaper acted promptly to record the actual decision of the committee, but believes that the second report did not go far enough to correct the misleading impression of the first story. It made no reference to the first, incorrect, report and may well have left readers confused about two apparently conflicting stories concerning the fate of the proposed new set fee. It is regrettable that the second report also contained an error, in that there was no mention of the role of the other ward advisory boards.

When the Northern Outlook again reports on the committee’s deliberations about the fee, on 15 September, it says the committee has “shied away again” from making a decision. There may have been good reason for describing the committee’s deferral like this; the committee minutes record that at least one other councillor was anxious to have the council’s position clear sooner rather than later. But the 15 September report contains no supporting information for the view expressed that the committee had shied away from making a decision. The Press Council takes the view that many people would consider the phrase to imply that committee had been unwilling or unable to make a decision.

As to the second complaint concerning the use of the press statement, newspapers will always look for anything newsworthy in a press statement, whether or not it is the angle taken by the writer of the statement. Newspapers must use the material with integrity.

In this case, the Northern Outlook saw Mr McRobie’s comment about the potential conflict of interest involving the Kaiapoi candidate and pulled it out to use in a story focusing on her candidature. Mr McRobie does not say that the view attributed to him was incorrect, but he is concerned that it was taken out of context. The Press Council considers the newspaper was within its right to use that comment – even if it was not couched in the terms that Mr McRobie intended. It was not used out of context, dealing as it did with the Kaiapoi candidate’s situation. Mr McRobie was concerned at a potential conflict of interest and his comment said so.

There is disagreement about whether the reporter spoke to Mr McRobie about his statement before the story was published. If so, the other comments attributed to him that are not in the press statement may have been made during that discussion. The Press Council is not a position to determine whether a discussion took place, but as it stands the newspaper seems to have drawn an inference from Mr McRobie’s statement that the candidate should step aside. Mr McRobie simply said the conflict of interest could make it inappropriate for her to perform both roles. Neither did he say in the statement that he agreed with other candidates who had called on her to stand down.

The Press Council upholds the first complaint on the grounds of accuracy. It does not uphold the second complaint about the use of Mr McRobie’s comment out of context. As to the delay in responding to Mr McRobie, the Press Council notes the apology by the newspaper’s editor, but can understand the frustration of complainants when their concerns fall on apparently deaf ears. Complainants are entitled to a prompt response.

Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.


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