BROOKE PHILPOTT AGAINST NORTHERN OUTLOOK AND THE PRESSA complaint about a print and online article featuring a children's book depicting Penguins in bondage gear has been partially upheld by the Press Council, with one Council member dissenting. However, its decision also finds that several Press Council principles cited were not breached.
The reports featured a book "Gus and Waldo's Book of Love" which a parent, Lana McLean, found at the Sovereign Star Preschool and Nursery in Kaiapoi in April. The book is intended as an adult picture book. The reports were published in a local newspaper, the Northern Outlook, and The Press, as well as appearing on the Stuff website on May 16.
The complaint was lodged by preschool manager Brooke Philpott. She has been supported by the woman quoted in the reports, Lana McLean, who has not, however, complained to the council.
Ms McLean, a mother of three, found the book on visiting the preschool while assessing the facility for her child. Other children brought the book to her and asked her to read it to them. She thought it inappropriate, and photographed some of it to show her husband. On the next day she complained to Ms Philpott. The reports said she left the preschool feeling her complaint wasn't being dealt with, and that this had prompted her to speak out about it.
Ms Philpott was quoted as saying Ms McLean had initially left without talking the issue over and had taken photographs without permission. It was a humorous book which was ordered wrongly on the assumption it was suitable for children given its brightly cartooned penguins. "We now appreciate that it contains some adult themes that parents would naturally object to and have decided to immediately withdraw it but stress that young children reading it would be completely unaware of the significance of the clothing worn by the penguins."
The story also quoted the Ministry of Education, which said early childhood education centres bought their own resources, including books. Picture books for adults might not be appropriate. The last paragraph said the ministry would be contacting the preschool "to remind them of their obligations."
Ms Philpott says the story made selective references to how she handled the complaint. Despite saying she had immediately removed the book, a story was run "sensationalising the issue with a prurient heading 'Bondage book found in Kaiapoi preschool'." It had damaged her business and caused her personal distress. It was inaccurate and tended to portray her in the worst light possible, by implying that the ministry had investigated her after a parental complaint.
The preschool had not realised the book contained adult themes and, once this was known, had withdrawn it immediately. However, young children would have been completely unaware of the significance of the penguins' clothing.
Ms McLean was not even a client of the preschool.
The story had also appeared two months after the incident, although Ms McLean had previously appeared satisfied with the action taken in withdrawing the book. However, the story did not mention that.
The first paragraph's claim that the ministry was prompted to contact the preschool "after the book was discovered" implied that this had resulted from the complaint -not because the newspaper had itself approached the ministry
Ms McLean complained to Ms Philpott's lawyer about how she had been reported. She believed "the honest mistake" with the book had been dealt with at the time. "I am horrified that my funny story around the office at work has resulted in us both being publicly named and shamed. I did not report this to the newspaper, simply had a laugh about it with my now ex-work the Northern Outlook. I was so gutted with their immoral tactics to get a story I resigned yesterday (May 17), effective immediately."
In a later email she also said she had not been formally interviewed, had tried to stop the story when she became aware of it, and had not identified the preschool. In that email, and in a previous posting on the Stuff website about the story, she said the preschool had acted on her complaint as soon as she raised it.
Greg Ford, weekend editor for The Press and acting editor for Canterbury communities, dismissed concerns about the story, the facts in it, and the conduct of the journalists concerned. It did not breach any of the principles identified by the complainant.
Ms Philpott was given the chance to respond to facts presented to the reporter. Those facts, and her response, were published in a fair, accurate and balanced manner. Three staff members, including two journalists, were present during the newsgathering activities and formal interview with Ms McLean. All had confirmed that the published report accurately and fairly reflected the facts that Ms McLean presented and that she gave permission for the photos to be published.
Ms McLean, previously employed as an advertising representative, had left Fairfax Media. Fairfax could not amplify on this, "nor to seek an understanding from her as to why she now believes she did not willingly participate in the interview and supply of the photographs she emailed to our reporter as outlined in the witness statements."
The reporter had clearly told Ms McLean the Northern Outlook would like to pursue and publish details she gave. She consented to have her name published, was shown parts of the story before publication and supplied photos for publication willingly. She had previously given news tips for the news team to pursue. "There was no room for ambiguity in regard to what we were doing and intended to do. We are at a loss as to explain why she now feels the story was gained by anything other than ethical means. "
Fairfax Media, not Ms McLean, had contacted the ministry for comment.
Press Council Decision
On first reading the published reports, "bondage" headings and accompanying pictures could be seen as a humorous, straightforward account. However, a number of issues arise: The complainant disagrees with the facts as reported, and also says the reports damaged her preschool and caused her personal distress. Ms McLean also objects to the way it was reported.
The Northern Outlook found out about the book because Ms McLean had talked about it while working there. The newspaper followed up on her comments and is not at fault in this.
The newspaper and Ms McLean differ on whether a formal interview took place. The Press Council cannot determine which is the more accurate version. Ms McLean said she later tried to stop the story being published after she realised it followed her unguarded comments. However, she had supplied the pictures to the newspaper by email, and also saw the story in its production phase.
Ms Philpott also says the reports implied the Ministry of Education would be taking action as a result of a parental complaint. However, the ministry only got involved because the newspaper sought its comment on the story it had already obtained. The story was inaccurate in that respect.
There is also doubt about the statement that Ms McLean left the pre-school feeling as if her complaint wasn't being dealt with, whereas the pre-school says it acted immediately to withdraw the book. The newspaper reports also appeared six – eight weeks after the incident, by which time the book had long since been withdrawn.
The main issue comes down to fairness: the story created the impression that the preschool did not act on the complaint when it was raised, it also implied that the ministry was acting on a parental complaint whereas it was responding to the newspaper's inquiry, and the account was published a considerable time after an incident which was apparently resolved at the time.
Part of the complaint, relating to the fairness aspect of the Press Council's Principle 1, is upheld.
However, the Press Council does not uphold other aspects of the complaint, citing Press Council Principles about children and young people, comment and fact, headlines and captions, subterfuge, conflicts of interest, and photographs and graphics.
Mark Stevens dissented from this decision and would not have upheld the complaint.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.