CRAIG INNES AGAINST HUTT NEWS

Case Number: 2760

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hutt News

Overview

1. This complaint concerns an article in Hutt News (Stuff) on November 27, 2018headlined Accusations Fly in Eastbourne, and subtitled The problem facing councils is that much of the biodiversity needing protection is on private land. The Resource Management Act requires councils to protect biodiversity, in part through declaring certain land Significant Natural Areas (SNAs). This process has resulted in feelings running high, in Eastbourne and elsewhere, because private landowners fear their rights to control and use their property are being endangered by SNAs.

The Complaint

2. The complaint from Craig Innes concerns a sentence in the November 27 article:

‘In reply, a senior officer said officers were reluctant to meet with Eastbourne residents due to the level of “abuse” and “threatening behaviour” which made discussion difficult.’ Mr Innes also complains that: threatening is a criminal offence so the statement alleged criminal behaviour; the description of the alleged threats varied over time; there were newsworthy points supplied subsequently by Mr Innes which were not followed up.

3. Mr Innes says he attended many of the meetings about SNAs and has not witnessed any examples of abuse or threatening behaviour. He does not believe it is acceptable to repeat an accusation like this from an unnamed source.

The Response

4. Eric Janssen, editor of The Dominion Post, which publishes Hutt News, notes the emotive and sometimes angry tone of the Eastbourne debate over SNAs. Stuff staff have become aware of this and sometimes personally experienced it. The Hutt reporter briefed the editor on the “simmering tension” and was instructed to be accurate, fair and balanced. Mr Janssen says that landowners may not have liked what or how matters were reported but this does not in itself make reports inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced.

5. Mr Janssen rejects Mr Innes’ allegation that a criminal offence was implied by the story, and says that “threatening behaviour” falls far short of an actual criminal threat. He has checked back with [Hutt City Council] officials who confirm they stand by the view that council staff felt that abuse and threatening behaviour was demonstrated during meetings on the SNAs. He says the council, alleging that some of its officers had been had been verbally abused or encountered threatening behaviour at meetings and in emails and phone calls, had requested Stuff to keep the source of this information confidential. Mr Janssen notes that the SNA dispute was between landowners and the council as a whole, and remains comfortable that the individual officer quoted was not named.

6. In relation to Mr Innes’ other points Mr Janssen says: information on alleged threatening behaviour did change over time but only to elaborate on and explain why the officer(s) were not named; Mr Innes’ “newsworthy points” not followed up were, in Stuff’s view, technical, and did not add to the article; some other points raised by Mr Innes were a matter between the council and landowners.

The Decision

7. The Media Council supports openness in naming sources, which strongly underpins accuracy, fairness and balance in media reporting. Each case must be considered on its merits and circumstances. In this particular case a number of factors are at play.

8. Wider issues raised by this complainant include whether council and its officials behaved appropriately in administering the SNA proposal, and in anonymously commenting on landowner behaviour. These are beyond the mandate of the Media Council. We note they are issues of good public administration and official behaviour, which it may be more useful to take up with the Ombudsman.

9. The context was demonstrably a heated one, where emotive comment and language was repeatedly used. Council officers, in their opinion, felt that abuse and threatening behaviour against them had taken place. The staff of Stuff had experienced this themselves. Ongoing media reporting over the period of the dispute mentioned the emotive and heated nature of the debate. One specific gun threat against council officers was reported to the Police around 6 months earlier (which Police dealt with by speaking to the person concerned, with no further action taken).

10. Hutt News was entitled to publish an account of the heated debate and to make a judgment call on whether to name officials concerned. The senior official quoted appeared to be speaking for the council but this was not clearly stated. In our view it would have been preferable for the reporter to confirm and state clearly in the story that the official concerned was acting as authorised spokesperson for the Hutt City Council. This would ensure that the council was fully accountable for its actions, which included a strong description, by an unnamed council officer, of landowners’ behaviour that was considered by the complainant to be inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair.

11. While Mr Innes may be disappointed that material he provided was not used, no publication is obliged to use material provided by parties.There are many matters that influence what is published including newsworthiness, likely reader engagement and other news stories competing for space. The Media Council has noted that several stories had been published on the broader issue of SNAs as well as the situation that was particular to Eastbourne. The specific article complained of contained even handed information on both sides of the debate.

12. In this case we conclude that the publication was within bounds of freedom of the media to use information from the council in the sentence complained of, without naming the individual source at the council; and was within the bounds of editorial discretion on the other complaints

13. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.