CHRISTINE TOMS AGAINST HOROWHENUA CHRONICLE
Case Number: 2640
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2017
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Horowhenua-Kapiti Chronicle
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Christine Toms complained that an article on a Horowhenua District Council meeting contained information that was untrue in breach of Press Council principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).
An online story published by NZME on October 12 and a similar story in the Horowhenua Chronicle on October 13 reported that district councillors had called for an investigation into allegations that a local woman, understood to be Christine Toms, had written and signed off emails as the district’s mayor.
The story was based on comment at a council meeting by Councillor Piri-Hira Tukapua who said she had received information that an unauthorised person had written and signed off emails purporting to be from the mayor.
It was reported that media at the meeting were offered a copy of an email sent from Mrs Toms’ address to the mayor. It was written as if from the mayor and was signed off “Regards, Michael Feyen, Mayor.”
Cr Tukapua said this was unlawful and “seriously damaged confidence and good governance.”
The articles also mentioned that Mrs Toms had acted as the mayor’s advocate. She was not paid by council for this and the mayor said any arrangements he had with her as his advocate were confidential.
Mrs Toms was concerned by reference to “emails” when there was just one email.
This was a draft she had prepared for the mayor to ask about the qualifications of the council’s acting chief executive. This email was accidentally copied to the council’s chief executive David Clapperton and it was subsequently forwarded to councillors and officers.
Mrs Toms said she had not purported to be the mayor. The article was a wild and deliberate attack on her reputation and had extended social media hate speech into mainstream media.
NZME had also breached her privacy by naming her in the articles.
NZME head of regional operations Kim Gillespie said the plural use of “emails” in the article was taken from Cr Tukapua’s comments at the council meeting. However, he acknowledged this differed from the minutes of the meeting which used the word “email”.
As for hate speech NZME did not have control over content on third party sites or social media sites and nor could it control when social media sites shared its content.
Mrs Toms’ concerns about being named in the article were misplaced. The email containing her name was given to media at the meeting. Although she was not named at the meeting Mrs Toms could easily be identified when the email was reviewed. He also argued the right to privacy “should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.” Mrs Toms’ role as the mayor’s advocate was of public interest.
However, the article was removed from the NZME website after the complaint was received.
There has been extensive reportage and social media comment about the Horowhenua District Council’s problems and of clashes between the mayor, his chief executive and councillors who have subsequently passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Feyen. This complaint seems to have arisen out of this history of troubled relations on the council, a situation where mistrust and ill-feelings can inflame issues that would otherwise be settled more easily.
There is legitimate public interest in the council’s affairs and at times when there is conflict like this, it is all the more important for the media to report matters fairly and accurately. Comments on social media are not under the control of theChronicle or within the purview of the Press Council.
The key issue is whether there were a number of emails or just one. The paper reported a councillor saying there were emails, while the council minutes refer to an email. However, a late item paper provided to the media at the meeting refers to emails so the publication had basis for the statement.
Cr Tukapua’s contention that an email or emails were written by somebody purporting to be the mayor may have misconstrued a situation where Mrs Toms had merely drafted an email for the mayor. But if she made that comment at a council meeting the media were entitled to report it.
The Press Council does not believe there was a legitimate claim for breach of privacy.
It is noted that the article was removed from the NZME website following Mrs Toms’ complaint. This was done without prejudice while it looked into the issues raised by Mrs Toms. The Press Council gives credit to publishers who take prompt action to address complaints.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.
Liz Brown took no part in the consideration of this complaint.