ALEX BEIJEN AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Case Number: 2924

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On June 2, 2020, the Wairarapa Times-Age published an article headedCouncil flat oven-less for four months.There was a picture of a ground-level flat opening to a small concrete area with a barbeque in it.The unit is badly maintained with peeling paint.There is a figure in the shadows standing by the door.

2. In general terms the article describes the events that had happened to Bill Wilson’s council flat from when his oven caught fire and become unusable four months previously.He had had no oven to cook on since then.The oven was of an irregular size and not easy to replace.The article describes Mr Wilson’s circumstances in his home, stating that a power socket on the oven had melted.Although he had been offered a hot plate, he had no oven for the four months.It is stated that Mr Wilson had been offered a new stove by the council but none had arrived before the Covid-19 lockdown.

3. A friend who is anonymous is quoted as saying that the oven was an essential item used by Mr Wilson to cook his casseroles and should have been fixed.The friend is also quoted as saying that the flat was neglected and run down, and that other tenants had their flats redecorated while Mr Wilson’s was not, and other tenants had been moved to hotels while Mr Wilson was not.The article concludes by stating that the council Chief Executive had said that a council member checked on Mr Wilson regularly, during the lockdown, and that the oven space had been measured by the council.In conclusion it is stated that an oven had not as yet been installed, the flats had been marketed in 2016 and not sold, and that the flat was scheduled for plastering and painting later in the year.

The Complaint

4. The complainant is Alex Beijen, the mayor of the South Wairarapa District Council, (SWDC).He states that the article has a number of incorrect facts and appears to be sensationalist journalism at the expense of truths.He lists the six facts that are incorrect as follows:

  • The fire started due to food being cooked and left unattended, not at a power socket as stated. The tenant failed to inform SWDC of this for at least one week following the fire.
  • The council, on numerous occasions during the lockdown, offered a bench top oven or hotplate, which was declined by the tenant. The tenant was visited by staff on at least six occasions and phoned many times during lockdown to check on how he was managing without an oven. Some food was supplied by staff during Level 4.
  • No other tenants were moved into hotels to allow redecoration by SWDC.
  • All flats are in a similar state of repair, with a proposed allocation of funds to rectify this in the current Annual Plan.
  • The oven was ordered as we entered lockdown Level 3 but was damaged in transit – the tenant has been kept informed of progress.
  • He is informed by the CEO the flats were never put on the market in 2016.

5. It is said in the complaint that most of the information was communicated to the journalist in question in a call 16.45 minutes long on 12 May 2020, before the article was published.It is stated that as a result of these inaccuracies and the facts and implications of the story, amenities staff have been subject to abusive emails and texts, as well as negative comments on social media.

The Response

6. In response the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age gave background on the story, and gave background also on the publication after the article of a letter from the SWDC Chief Executive Harry Wilson that had been sent to the editor of the paper, which set out the council’s perspective.

7. The Chief Executive of the council had been contacted prior to the article being published. The SWDC had been given time to put things right with the tenant.The council’s letter in response was published on 6 June and included the fact that the oven had finally been installed on 5 June.

8. It is suggested that publishing a letter from the Chief Executive of the council in response was a fair opportunity for rebuttal.The poor state of the flats was a story in itself.It was observed that the poor state of the flats has been ignored by the council, and this continued in the correspondence with the Media Council.It is said that the information received by the newspaper indicated that other tenants had been moved into hotels to allow redecoration, and that the empiric information did indicate that the fire had started in the socket on the stove, rather than the overcooking of food on the top of the oven. It was also the fact that Mr Wilson as a tenant was without an oven from February to early June and that the Westhaven flats are in a state of disrepair and have been for a long time.

9. Other details we discuss below, are raised.The newspaper stands behind its decision to publish. The overall thrust of the article was of neglect of a council flat by the council, causing hardship to the occupant who was in receipt of state support and required some level of mental healthcare.In general terms the flat had been allowed to be run-down, while other similar flats in the block have been redecorated, and tenants moved to hotels.Mr Wilson was offered only a hot plate once his oven had caught fire and become unusable.The article reflects badly on a council, which appears to have been neglectful of a needy tenant.

The Decision

10. The complaint raises an alleged breach of Principle 1, which requires publications to be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness, and balance.

Analysis

Did the fire start at a power socket on the oven that melted?

11. The article says that the fire started in the power socket.To this Mr Beijen states that this is incorrect, and that the fire started because of food being cooked and left unattended.The tenant failed to inform the council of this for at least a week.

12. The correctness of what the council asserts, and the incorrectness of the statement in the article, are not refuted in the response of theWairarapa Times Age.It explains that the socket was melted, and there were no signs above the oven consistent with an unattended cooking fire, but goes on “However, we will not argue over that”.

13. We appreciate that it may be difficult for the Wairarapa Times Age to have got correct information on the cause of the fire, and we note that the photograph of the stove that was published appears to show a melted socket.However, it does not appear to be the case that the assertion that the fire was caused by a melted socket was put to the council.As we have set out, there is no refutation of what was said in the council’s letter to the editor, or the council’s complaint, denying that the fire was caused by a fire in the socket.

14. We must conclude that the complaint has substance.Although we cannot determine disputed factual points, it was unfair to blame the state of the stove for the fire without seeking an explanation from the Council, which would have stated that in its view the fire was caused by cooking on the stove being left unattended.Such a response should have been put in the article, obviating the unfairness of reporting only the anonymous complaint.

Did the Council offer only a hotplate in substitution?

15. This is the statement made in the article.To this Mr Beijen states that in fact, a bench top oven was offered by the council to Mr Wilson and this was rejected by him.A bench top oven would have enabled Mr Wilson to do oven cooking, and it can be assumed would have ameliorated on a temporary basis the loss of the stove.

16. Again, the correctness of this complaint of inaccuracy, and the incorrectness of the statement in the article, are not refuted in the response of theWairarapa Times-Age. Instead it is said that the article did say that a hot plate was offered.

17. There is a considerable difference between offering a hot plate only, in which Mr Wilson could not cook his casseroles, and an oven, albeit a bench top oven, in which he could.

18. This reference only to the hot plate being offered, was therefore misleading, and showed the Mr Wilson being more disadvantaged by council inaction and action than in fact he was.

19. We do not see any merit in Mr Beijin’s associated complaint about a lack of mention of council staff checking on and helping Mr Wilson during lockdown, as there is a general reference to such help in the article.

Were other flats in the block redecorated, and other tenants moved to hotels, when Mr Wilson received neither benefit?

20. These statements are in the article.Mr Beijen states that to the contrary in his complaint, no other tenants were moved into hotels to allow redecoration, and that all flats are in a similar state of repair, with a proposed allocation of funds to rectify this in the annual plan.

21. The Wairarapa Times-Age in its response, says that this information had come from its anonymous source, and that the source had been a close friend and neighbour of Mr Wilson for a long period and was judged to be thoroughly reliable and “in–the–know”.



22. However, what happened to the other flats and tenants was within the knowledge of the council and was not refuted.We must accept it as correct.The information given to theWairarapa Times-Age by its anonymous source was wrong, and misleadingly indicated that Mr Wilson was getting less favourable treatment than other tenants.

Were the flats put on the market in 2016 but did not attract a buyer?

23. This statement is in the article.Mr Beijen states that the flats have never been put on the market.The actual position is unclear. We note that this is not particularly pejorative to the council, and there is no basis for upholding the complaint on this point.

The general thrust of delay by the Council

24. It is said in the complaint that the oven was ordered at the start of Level 3 but damaged in transit, and the tenant was kept informed as to progress.A new oven was provided on 5 June 2020.We now consider the complaint in its overall context.

Overview

25. In our view there was a basis for critical comments by supporters of Mr Wilson, on council delay in replacing the stove, given that Mr Wilson did not have a stove that worked for four months (although he was offered a bench top oven or hot plate).The stage four lock down, and damage to the stove in transit, are not a satisfying explanation of such a long delay.There was also a basis for criticism of the council in allowing occupied flats to fall into such disrepair.In this regard there can be no criticism of the article.

26. However, the article is unfair and unbalanced, in making the council appear to be prepared to let its chattels malfunction and stay so, unsympathetic to Mr Wilson’s vulnerable situation, and unfair to him in that the Council was prepared to offer other tenants better solutions to the run-down state of their flats than were offered to Mr Wilson.The article is not about the council flats in general, as suggested by theWairarapa Times Age in its response.It is about the unfair treatment by the council of a vulnerable tenant in a particularly badly maintained flat, and the references to the other flats are background to the key story.

27. The council appears to have responded to Mr Wilson’s situation once the stove stopped working, by offering what appears to have been a reasonable short-term alternative, and by being helpful to him, and (slowly), proceeding to get him a new oven.Most of this side of the story was put by the mayor to the Wairarapa Times-Age reporter in a 16.45 minute phone call on 12 May, but when the article appeared almost three weeks later, there is little reference to the council’s explanation, and the council appears to have been very uncaring.This is captured by the headline “Council flat oven-less for four months”.

28. Further, as we have set out, the council was not asked what caused the stove failure, and there were inaccuracies as to what the council offered Mr Wilson to enable him to continue to have use of an oven, and what the council had done for other tenants but not Mr Wilson.

29. As we have set out, we recognise that the council delay in getting the oven was a proper topic for an article, as was the disrepair and run-down state of the council flats.But this was not just about delay in replacing the oven, or a general article about the state of the flats.The article paints council in a worse light than any such failings warrant.It indicates by implication that loss of a functioning stove, the offer only of a hot plate to Mr Wilson, and the allegedly preferential treatment of other tenants, show some real meanness towards him which a reader might attribute as arising from or at least careless of, his vulnerable state.This went too far.It was unfair to the council.

30. The fact that every detail that we deal with here may not have been put by the mayor to the reporter in the telephone call, does not answer the complaint, as in the end it is the duty of the reporter to put negative allegations of fact to the subject of the damaging reporting.The fact that a letter of refutation from the Chief Executive was published four days after the article, does not cure the errors and unfairness.All that was said on publication of the letter was “TheTimes-Age is pleased the SWDC has provided a new oven for the tenant”.There is no acknowledgment that the facts put by the “anonymous source” were wrong.

In this regard we note that despite the complaint and the statements of fact, theWairarapa Times-Age has not published any correction of the errors.The original damaging article is still available on-line, and the letter is not.

Result

31. The complaint is upheld.We conclude that the parts of the article we have referred to were misleading, and that the overall the article lacked accuracy fairness and balance.There was a breach of Principle 1.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.



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