B.F.SHANNON AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 615

Council Meeting: JUNE 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

A complaint against the New Zealand Herald by Mr B.F.Shannon of Takapuna has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Mr Shannon was aggrieved because the Herald in a computer page article made a statement which Mr Shannon says was "completely false." He sought by way of redress, publication of a correction in the newspaper and retraction of the implications he read into the original statement. The Herald saw no reason to publish a retraction or correction, especially in the form he demanded. It said it regarded Mr Shannon's argument as "semantic."

Mr Shannon supplied an immense amount of material to the Press Council to support his complaint. He stressed he found no fault with the New Zealand Herald in publishing the original claim in "good faith."

The background was in conflicting views about the computer systems used by the Labour Party in its election campaigns. It was said the system used by the party from 1980 to 1987 led the world and was developed by computer industry professionals. The "Campaign System" was, according to Mr Shannon, promoted within the NZ Labour Party by a small group known as the Campaign Systems Group, which became Campaign Systems Ltd. In his submission to the Press Council Mr Shannon insisted the computer-based electorate organisation and targeted mail systems used in the 1984 Labour election victory were developed and supplied by Campaign Systems, led by himself.

In the light of this, it was understandable that Mr Shannon was aggrieved to read in the Herald a statement that "Mr (Mike) Williams was one of the brains behind the first computer database used by the Labour Party for electorate logistics and strategy in the run towards its 1984 election landslide win."

The New Zealand Herald, through its deputy editor, Mr Don Milne, said the comment complained of, was almost an aside within the general context of the article. He noted that the subject of computer services for the Labour Party leading up to the 1984 general election had caused considerable debate, much of it acrimonious. There had certainly been threats of legal action, and the issue was "something of a minefield."

Mr Milne said the Herald's computer editor had made extensive inquiries "into these dangerous waters." Those inquiries led him and the newspaper to the conclusion that the comment made in the article was by no means, as Mr Shannon asserted, "false in all respects."

"We are not disposed to put all of the information gathered at Mr Shannon's disposal.... but it is a fact that Mr Williams started work for the Labour Party in 1978 and took an interest in the use of computers. He was closely involved in the specifications for, and installation and operation of, the marginal seats system used for the 1984 general election, and, as a report published in 1985 shows, was subsequently hired to advise the Australian Labour Party on ways to improve its performance in marginal electorates including computer technology," Mcr Milne said.

The Herald's sources assured it that it was not true Mr Williams was an active opponent of the databases and their use, as suggested by Mr Shannon. He was, the Herald understood, opposed to the inflexibility of one particular type of system, and that which was finally introduced had the design features and capabilities he had insisted on.

The role Mr Williams played, said the Herald was sufficient to describe him in the way the computer editor had done. It was Mr Williams" system that was adopted by the Australian Labour Party, rather than the alternative system put forward by Mr Shannon and his group.

For the Press Council, the issue was whether the article breached the principles of good newspaper practice to the point where it required a correction or retraction

Given the depth of feeling aroused by the statement complained of, and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the Herald might have concluded a less emotive phrase than "one of the brains" behind the first computer base used by the Labour party in its article, would have been appropriate.

For the Press Council, the issue was whether the article breached the principles of good newspaper practice to the point where it required a correction or retraction.

The material presented to the Council provided some internal evidence that Mr Williams was involved in the operation of computer databases for the Labour Party, and therefore the newspaper was entitled to refer to his involvement.

Whether it could have resolved the dispute with Mr Shannon by way of some subsequent clarification remains doubtful, in view of the acrimony that surrounded the issue.

The Council did not uphold the complaint.

The retiring editor of the New Zealand Herald, Mr Peter Scherer who is a member of the Press Council, was not present at the Council meeting when the complaint was dealt with.