COMPLAINT BY ACC AGAINST THE SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 556

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 1994

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

A complaint by the ACC against the Sunday Star-Times for a report published on August 21, has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council, but the Council expressed some reservations about the way the corporation's complaint to the newspaper had been handled by both parties.

Client services manager for the ACC, Fred Cockram complained that the heading on the report "ACC in secret meeting" left the reader with the impression that :
* the ACC had attempted to interfere with the appeal rights of claimants;
* this attempt was covert;
* District Court judges had agreed to measures designed to iimpede judicial procedures.

He said the report was set on misrepresentation; that the use of the word "secret" implied improper actions by the ACC, and that the presentation of the ACC's responses were aimed at making them unbelievable and reinforced a belief that something underhand had occurred.

Mr Cockram sought a correction in the next issue of the Sunday Star-Times and an aplogy to the district court judges concerned.

When the paper's editor Michael Prain didn't respond, Mr Cockram asked the Press Council to consider the matter.

Essentially the Sunday Star-Times learned, it seems from an urgent appeal hearing before Judge Robert Kerr involving the estate of a man who died of asbestos exposure, that there had been a meeting involving the ACC, the Chief District Court Judge and other judges who hear ACC appeals. The meeting decided not to schedule further appeals relating to one particular section of the Act, in the meantime.

ACC says that section stops the Corporation making payments to people who lodge claims for personal injury 12 months or more after suffering that injury. Because two separate district court decisions had suggested that section of the Act didn't apply to one particular category of complaint, the ACC had been given leave to appeal to the High Court to clarify the situation.

The ACC says the meeting decided not to schedule further appeals under that section of the Act until the High Court had ruled, to save claimants and the corporation time and money.

Mr Cockram says all this was explained to the reporter who, in the ACC's view, still chose to write his article in such a way as to undermine the credibility of its denials of anything improper having occurred. the use of the words "secret," "stifle," and "sinister" were used as examples of this contention.

In his response to the Press Council, Mr Prain defended the report. . He said the ACC seemed concerned not with the report's accuracy, but with the interpretation of facts that readers might draw. He rejected Mr Cockram's assertions that the article failed to adequately present the ACC's position and defended the use of ther word "secret" by quoting a dictionary definition.

The article, he said, had prominently used ACC's denial that there was anything sinister in the May 24 meeting "sinister" being a word Mr Cockram himself used in his letter to Mr Prain. Mr Prain also said the facts proved the article's points - the ACC had tried, unsuccessfully, to use a decision made by the May 24 meeting to delay certain appeals, to have the appeal before Judge Kerr adjourned.

In its decision the Press Council found the article was accurate as far as it went. Whether it went far enough in putting the ACC's view was a matter of opinion, though it found the newspaper, by incorporating a few extra words as to why the May 24 meeting decided to schedule no further appeals on this category of complaint until the High Court decision was known, would have left the corporation no room for complaint.

However, it further found this was a complaint for which other remedies could and should have been pursued and that it should not have had to be dealt with by the Press Council. It was a matter that could have been handled, for example, by way of a letter to the editor, for publication, putting the corporation's view. The complaint seemed to stem from a failure of communications on both sides.

The Council expressed its disappointment that the Sunday Star-Times editor didn't respond to Mr Cockram's complaint until it was referred to the Press Council.