ALLAN WEBB AGAINST THE TE AWAMUTU NEWS
Case Number: 3247
Council Meeting: March 2022
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Te Awamutu News
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
1. Allan Webb has complained about an article published in the Te Awamutu News on 22 December 2021. The article headed “Regent in new trust hands” outlines the upcoming gifting of Mr Webb’s movie theatre to a newly established trust. Mr Webb believes that the article has slighted his character and has included incorrect and private information.
2. This article describes the transfer by Mr Webb of his theatre, The Regent, to the ownership of a community-based trust, which will be called the Allan Webb Theatre Trust. It identifies the inaugural trustees, wrongly naming Mr Webb as one of them. The objective of the article appears to be an investigation as to whether there are any encumbrances on this theatre and whether it will be a going concern as it moves into the hands of the trust.
3. The journalist has researched through the Companies Office, prior news articles, public communications (email) and Council records to identify that Mr Webb has been struggling to keep the doors open, particularly post Covid-19, declaring that he is reliant on the transfer of ownership to ensure that the Theatre remains open through to March 2022 to celebrate its 90th birthday. Nearly $20,000 was raised through Give-A-Little campaign last year to keep the business running.
4. The capital value of the theatre and the cost of annual rates are noted and Mr Webb is quoted as saying he has a mortgage and loans to keep the theatre operating. While there may be some inference that these debts are tied to the transfer of the theatre to the trust, the last sentence of the article clearly states that it is ...”not known whether the trust was taking on any of those debts.”
5. There are some complimentary comments about the development of the theatre by Mr Webb over the years. There is also comment in the article about Mr Webb being unwilling to be interviewed for this article as “a New Zealand Herald owned newspaper (The Te Awamutu Courier) was doing something and I can see no reason to double up.” The article says the editor of The Te Awamutu Courier is one of the new trustees.
6. Mr Webb’s complaint to the Media Council is that the article is insulting to him, particularly in the face of his gift of the theatre and its contents to the community. He states that there is incorrect and private information in the article and that the story is misleading to readers.
7. Mr Webb is unhappy with the initial response from the Te Awamutu News to his complaint and would like the journalist to be held to account in that she “tried to ruin my character.”
8. Further communications show that Mr Webb emailed the journalist, copying in the owner of the newspaper, on the day the article was published to express his concerns about the story. In this email:
- Mr Webb objected to the use of the photo in the article saying that he had not given her permission to include a photo of him.
- He says the article wrongly identifies him as a trustee.
- Mr Webb objects to the publication of his comments about his loans and mortgage to keep the theatre running and the possibility of these debts being connected to the transfer of the theatre to the trust, saying that these matters are private.
- He is unhappy that there is reference to the company that owns the theatre of which he is the single shareholder, saying that this is private.
- He also is unhappy with the term “certain assets” used in the article to describe some of the effects, presumably collections of memorabilia and many archived documents about NZ theatres that are being gifted to the trust.
9. Though not all the details above were included in Mr Webb’s complaint to the Media Council these comments are included to give full view of the depth of Mr Webb’s dissatisfaction with the article.
10. The morning after receiving Mr Webb’s complaint the editor of Te Awamutu News, Roy Pilott, responded acknowledging the mistake in naming Mr Webb as a trustee and apologising for this. He said that he would immediately update the website story to acknowledge the error and in the next paper out on 13 January there would also be a correction printed.
11. Mr Pilott acknowledged that the establishment of the new trust was a significant news story and made a further request for the journalist to be able to speak with him.
12. In his response to the Media Council Mr Pilott expresses frustration at Mr Webb’s unwillingness to be interviewed for the original article and refusing further requests to speak with Te Awamutu News after the story was published.
13. He remains concerned that there are still a number of questions unanswered on the matter of the theatre, particularly the investment of time and resources by the Waipa District Council and the possibility that the theatre may not be a viable business. Mr Pilott objects to what he sees as a personal attack on the journalist and supports her work on this article.
14. Allan Webb has devoted his life to the film industry through the development of the Regent Theatre in Te Awamutu and as a film historian and conservator. The culmination of this life’s work is his gift of the theatre and the museum-like collection of artefacts and records to the Te Awamutu community through the vehicle of a trust.
15. On 17 December 2021 Te Awamutu News received an email from Mr Webb advising that there was to shortly be an announcement by the Trust that they would be taking over the Regent Theatre from 1 April 2022. In response, a journalist from the paper approached Mr Webb via email for an interview. He declined this request and after a further approach declined a second time.
16. Through significant research the journalist wrote a story addressing the nature of the ownership of the theatre and raising questions about possible encumbrances over the theatre and its viability under the governance of the trust. Much of the information in the article was taken from statements Mr Webb had made in previous articles in Te Awamutu News, a Stuff article and an interview with Radio NZ, all information in the public domain.
17. The matter of such a substantial and valued asset being gifted to the community is certainly newsworthy. The questions raised in the article about the details of this gift and asset, and any debts associated with it, are fair and in the public interest.
18. Although Mr Webb has not specified any principles in his complaint, it seems appropriate to consider it under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 2: Privacy, which states in part: “Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless, the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.”
19. Mr Webb has been offended by the probing nature of the article, but there were significant matters of public interest that the Te Awamutu News was entitled to investigate. All information in the article is taken from the public domain, much from previous interviews or comments made by Mr Webb himself, so there is no breach of Principle 2.
20. The statement that Mr Webb was a trustee was a significant and serious error, particularly as it led the story and had the Te Awamutu News not corrected it so promptly it is likely the complaint would have been upheld under Principle 1. However, this error was acknowledged by the editor and corrected on the website the day of the complaint. There was also a correction printed in the next edition of the paper. To fully acknowledge the nature of the error it may have been more fitting for the correction to be headed as such or placed in a more prominent position as is the practice in other publications. Overall, though the response seems genuine and timely.
21. Mr Webb also complained that the article was unfair to him, but the Media Council believes the story was investigating a legitimate matter of public interest, and Mr Webb’s unwillingness to be interviewed makes it difficult for him to complain that his side of the story was not told.
Decision: Complaint not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon. Raynor Asher (chair) Hank Schouten, Tim Watkins, Jonathan MacKenzie, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Liz Brown, Katrina Bennett, Reine Vaai and Alison Thom.