BERNARD HARRIS AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTBernard Harris complained to the Press Council about The Dominion Post’s coverage of the Wellington City Council election in the local body elections of 2007
His complaint is not upheld.
In his complaint to the Press Council (Feb 10, 2008,) Mr Harris suggested that the omission of essential information from the newspaper’s coverage had had a “substantial effect” on the final electoral results.
In his earlier, formal complaint to the newspaper itself (30 October, 2007) Mr Harris was more specific: the lack of information about alternative choices amounted to “interference” in the electoral outcome.
Further, The Dominion Post’s practice of only providing detailed information about mayoral candidates had the effect of giving preferential treatment to those who stood for both mayoral and council positions, over those who offered themselves solely for positions on the council. Such uneven treatment was, in his view, unfair and unbalanced.
Mr Harris suggested that there seemed to be a Dominion Post policy decision limiting coverage of candidates for city councils, regional councils and District Health Boards and argued that this meant that citizens were limited in exercising their democratic right to vote because they could not have an informed understanding of the candidates and why they were putting themselves forward.
He also submitted to the Press Council, as background material, a series of letters, submissions and e-mails which formed an on-going exchange with the media, often on the general theme of public apathy in local body elections. The references (dating back to July 2006) stressed the importance of highlighting local body issues, council members and prospective candidates in order to combat low turn-out at the polls.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor, Tim Pankhurst, in his reply to the initial complaint to the newspaper, suggested that Mr Harris was “unrealistic” in his expectations of what and how much material could be published.
He said that The Dominion Post had given “extensive coverage” to the local body elections, including backgrounding the “top ten” issues as identified by polling a 500-member reader panel.
He noted that Mr Harris had often had letters and articles published in The Dominion Post, but this complaint was firmly rejected.
In further e-mail correspondence with Mr Harris (later submitted to the Press Council by the complainant), Mr Pankhurst explained there had been no outright ban on publishing material about candidates campaigning for positions other than mayor – any publicity would be dependent on news merits. However, the newspaper could not profile each and every candidate.
Obviously, this is a complaint about omission rather than any fault of commission by the newspaper. However, the complainant contends that when the newspaper decided to focus on mayoral candidates and largely forgo any attempt to profile all candidates, such an act of omission became unfair and unbalanced journalism.
He argues that the newspaper’s policy led to some candidates being favoured over others, and contributed to both a limited democratic process and a low voter turn out.
This complaint raises the question of what is fair and reasonable coverage during local body elections.
A large regional newspaper is in an unenviable if not impossible position, when it comes to attempting to provide background information and profiles on all the candidates. This is the more so when its circulation covers a wide geographical area.
There are city councils, various community wards and boards, regional councils, District Health Boards, contests for the position of Mayor. At times there are scores of hopefuls vying for election for several of these bodies.
There is simply not enough space to cover all candidates and many newspapers have to restrict their coverage.
In the Press Council’s view it was entirely reasonable for The Dominion Post to “draw the line” and focus on the campaigns for the mayoral position.
The Council also notes its features and articles on the “top ten” issues, as delineated by the large reader panel, its creation of public mayoral forums in both Wellington and Lower Hutt, and editorials urging readers to participate in the electoral process by asking questions and by voting.
Finally, it is also important to note that any policy to highlight the mayoral contest did not include a blanket ban against covering any candidate for the various elected bodies. Candidates who could make themselves or their campaign or their policies newsworthy, would still be featured.
For the reasons given above, the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.