BERT jACKSON AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESLate last year the Hamilton City Council turned down a request to hold an 'Erotica Expo' at the council's Claudelands Arena. Bert Jackson has complained that the Waikato Times did not fairly report the council's reasons, causing the decision to be heavily opposed in a public forum on the newspaper's website. The complaint is not upheld.
The decision was the subject of a brief item in the newspaper and a longer report on the website. The printed story quoted a council member, Maria Westphal, chair of its strategy and policy committee, explaining that members had weighed up the financial needs of their struggling events centre against the risk of "upsetting a large proportion of the community" and decided the expo did not meet Hamilton's "family-friendly values".
The website carried Mrs Westphal's explanation, followed by extensive comment from the only council member who opposed the decision, Ewan Wilson.
Mr Wilson believed the event might have earned significant income for the centre and that an expo with an entry charge and an age restriction was quite different from an indecent public display. People should be able to decide for themselves whether to attend.
Readers who responded on the website were overwhelmingly of a similar view. The newspaper then printed a report of the reaction and an editorial that criticised the council's decision.
Mr Jackson believes the reaction would have been different if the newspaper and website had printed not just Mrs Westphal's explanation but the reasoning and submissions behind the decision.
"The predominant concern shared by most councillors," he said, "was always specifically the Erotica Expo's close association with the pornographer Steve Crow.....the hardcore pornography he produces...that would, as always, have been promoted at the expo."
The issue, he said, "was never whether the public should or should not have the opportunity to attend a particular event. It was whether material widely offensive to the public should be promoted at a venue the public own." The council was not trying to "censor" the event, it was concerned about the likely promotion of very objectionable material, both at the expo and afterwards, and on billboards.
He contends that by omitting this reasoning and extensively reporting the views of the single council member who opposed the decision, the newspaper breached the principle of balance. It did not report comments by other council members attesting to the volume of messages they had received from people opposed to the expo.
Mr Jackson said he was a spokesman for a network called Voice Waikato that lobbies for family life and community values. Its submissions to the council had been ignored by the newspaper, as were 30 messages posted on Voice Waikato's site.
He complained on four grounds: unfairness, lack of balance, a failure to correct errors and he believed the paper had a special duty of care at the time because the Hamilton City Council was under criticism for the city's debt.
The Waikato Times was the main source of local information, he said, and it had harmed the democratic process by giving the impression the council wanted to be the people's "moral police".
The Newspaper's Response
The Deputy Editor believed Mr Jackson was making his own interpretation of the council's motives. But in any case, the anti-pornography message was implicit in the comment by Mrs Westphal that the event did not fit Hamilton's "family-friendly values".
The newspaper's website poll had never been presented as a scientific sample but it was the most overwhelming response the paper had ever received online. He agreed the poll was not representative but added that it was open to Mr Jackson's supporters to take part in it.
The newspaper report of the online reaction had included a strong defence of the council's decision by a council member opposed to the expo.
The Waikato Times had not shut out any view. It had published every letter or media release the Deputy Editor had seen on the subject, for or against the council's decision.
The Press Council is not persuaded that reaction to the Hamilton City Council's decision would have been different had the Waikato Times reported it in the terms the complainant would have preferred. Mr Steve Crow's promotion of the event is well known and the likely presence of pornography would be assumed by most people.
They would also have been well aware the Claudelands Arena was council-owned - indeed, many criticised the decision as a missed opportunity to cut its losses. They did not seem to think its public ownership made it unsuitable for an exhibition of this sort.
The newspaper concedes that the response on its website was not a scientific poll but there is no suggestion it was blocking anyone from joining the debate.
The Press Council finds no lack of fairness or balance in the newspaper's handling of the story. Both sides were given a say in its reports. A report on a council’s determinations would become unwieldy if the submissions and every councillor’s opinion had to be reported.
Mr Jackson takes issue with the Deputy Editor's claim that every media release he saw was published and cites a Voice Waikato release that was not. The Press Council does not consider this to be a serious lack of balance.
It sees nothing in the newspaper's coverage to warrant correction and does not agree that the newspaper breached a special duty of care because the City Council was facing criticism over its debt. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.