CHRIS PARKER AGAINST TAUPO TIMES

Case Number: 688

Council Meeting: MARCH 1998

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Taupo Times

The complaint by Mr Chris Parker against the Taupo Times was not upheld by the Press Council. The complaint was that the newspaper had printed a response by the officials of the Taupo-Nui-A-Tia College to a letter written by him to the editor of the newspaper about the treatment of his son at the College’s hands, and which response contained as a ground for suspension the “violent behaviour” of the student. The Council held the
reference to “violent behaviour” was unwarranted, but that was the responsibility of the College authorities.

This complaint posed for the Council an intractable problem for which there is no satisfactory disposition that is likely to appease all parties. The main reason is that the Press Council’s involvement is limited to examining the complaint in the light of the facts so far as they might relate to the conduct of the newspaper in question. The Council does not, and cannot, participate in the aspects of the problem which concern the student’s general conduct and the College’s handling thereof.

The essential facts leading to the complaint are as follows. The student at the College had, during 1997, presented the College authorities with both behavioural and learning problems. The general misbehaviour centred around persistently poor performance in his academic work and that his teachers considered he wilfully failed to meet his potential. His behaviour more narrowly defined to disciplinary matters seemed to be truancy, and sullen negativity in the classroom which together challenged the authority of the teachers to have their proper instructions obeyed.

On one occasion in May 1997 he was suspended for three days on the grounds of “his repeated misbehaviour and that he took a significant part in a serious fight between a large group of boys at school” as stated in the letter of suspension. The letter also mentioned “continual disobedience”.

It seemed his behaviour showed little or no improvement, although he had signed an agreement after the May 1997 incident to the effect he would make greater efforts.

In a letter addressed to his parent dated 14 October 1997 the Acting Principal advised that the student was suspended forthwith for an indefinite period. “The grounds for suspension are his continual misbehaviour, failure to follow the terms of our agreement and inability to follow instructions of senior staff members.”

The parent determined to make his complaints against the College public and prepared a rather long letter addressed to the editor of the Taupo Times for publication. The letter was shown to the College authorities who provided a response, also of some length, which contained, among other material, the following paragraph: “The student in question was suspended for violent behaviour and consistently breaking his contract.” The College
response disputed as inaccurate some of the allegations and facts contained in Mr Parker’s letter. The letter and the response were published on 23 December 1997 in the Taupo Times.

There is evidence, which the Council accepts, that the then editor of the newspaper pointed out to the parent the unwisdom of taking his complaint to the public by way of a letter to the editor. Notwithstanding this advice Mr Parker was determined to follow this course. The letter and response were given prominence under the headline “Raising concerns about pupil suspension”.

Mr Parker’s complaint to the Council is that his son’s reputation was damaged by the paragraph reproduced above contained in the College’s response.

The essence of the complaint against the newspaper is that it printed that the student’s suspension was partly for “violent behaviour”. In the Council’s view the “violent behaviour” ground was unfair on the part of the College, and it should have confined its grounds to those nominated in the letter of suspension. The material before the Council shows there was one historical instance of physical misconduct and it appeared not to be
specific to the student in question, but for his part in a single instance of group misbehaviour. For that, and general misbehaviour, he suffered a three days’ suspension. There is nothing else before us emanating from the College which justifies use of the strong word “violent” in relation to his behaviour.

Notwithstanding the foregoing the Council does not believe the newspaper failed in accepted standards of journalism in printing the College’s official response signed as it was by the Chairman, the Deputy Chairman and the Principal. The responsibility for the contents of the letter rested with the signatories and the complainant does not have redress with the Press Council by way of complaint. In these circumstances there was no
obligation upon the newspaper to establish the validity of every fact contained in the original letter written by the complainant, or the response by the College. The newspaper simply placed the issues before the public.