CRICKET WELLINGTON UMPIRES AND SCORERS INC AGAINST THE DOMINION POST
Case Number: 2061
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2009
Verdict: Upheld in Part
Publication: The Dominion Post
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
EvanWatkin, Chairman of Cricket Wellington Umpires and Scorers Inc, has complained about two articles in The Dominion Post published on 30 and 31 October 2008. The articles dealt with the appointment of a particular umpire.
The complaint is partially upheld.
The first article was headed:
Umpire sacked in first game
The first sentence of the article read:
“Wellington Club cricket umpire X has been dismissed after calling a wide for a delivery cut to point.”
The article then quoted a team captain as saying that “the incident was one of many poor calls that left players from both sides shaking their heads”.
Mr Watkin was responsible for the appointment of the umpire. The article went on to say:
“Watkin acknowledged that the standard of club umpiring was mixed, that X needed further training and ‘would not stand in the near future’ but he said he was forced to introduce novice umpires to senior cricket because of lack of experienced alternatives.”
The Chief Executive of Cricket Wellington, Gavin Larsen, was quoted as saying:
“... the idea of getting a single good umpire to stand at both ends has been considered, but made a whole day’s play too tough for one person.”
The second article appeared under the heading:
“Larsen backs Watson and rookie umpires”.
The article stated that other umpires had urged Mr Watkin not to throw X, a Level 2 umpire, straight into senior cricket but a lack of numbers meant that Mr Watkin took the plunge and allocated X to the match in question.
Mr Larsen was also quoted as saying that Mr Watkin had a great track record of allocating umpires to games and:
“I think he has done a sterling job over the years and I see this as a very isolated incident.
It is not the sort of story I want to see early in the season. It is not a great look.”
The article then went on to say that X did not return calls yesterday and Mr Watkin was not in a mood to talk saying that the umpire would not be talking and neither would he. The article also stated that the plan was to introduce X to umpiring in lower grades or secondary school grades.
The complaint alleges three factual errors in the first article, namely:
1) The reference to the umpire “being dismissed” in the first sentence was totally incorrect and led to the completely erroneous headline.
2) Although the umpire did call a wide it was not due to a lack of knowledge of the law as implied in the article but simply a case of calling a wide too soon.
3) The reporter had not checked with the scorer on the alleged seven ball overs and Mr Watkin had checked with the scorer and confirmed that none was recorded.
It was alleged that the article lacked balance because the reporter did not check the allegations with the captain of the opposing team.
It was alleged that the second article was factually incorrect when it quoted Mr Watkin, saying that the umpire “won’t be talking and neither will I”. Mr Watkin said he did not say this, and neither had other umpires urged him not to throw X into senior cricket. Additionally the newspaper had referred to an umpire of three years experience as a ‘rookie’.
The complaint concluded with:
“The story was inaccurate, unbalanced and misleading which The Dominion Post has totally failed to acknowledge. The story has unfairly damaged the reputation of cricket umpires and the association.”
The response from the editor of The Dominion Post, which is a sponsor of Wellington Cricket, refers to various background matters which are not directly relevant to the issues raised by the complaint. It said that the purport of the article was that an inexperienced umpire has made a decision which raises legitimate questions about whether that umpire is fit to control top level cricket. The competition was below the premier grade in Wellington.
The Dominion Post’s response to the factual errors alleged in the first article may be summarised:
The intro’s use of the word “dismissed” draws on the cricket parlance of a “dismissal’. However, they also relate to what the newspaper says Mr Watkin told the reporter, namely that the umpire required further training and would not stand in the near future.
It was sceptical of the comment that the umpire called the wide too soon.
A reference to the seven ball overs came from the captain who spoke to the reporter.
In respect to the allegation of lack of balance in the first article, it was claimed that it was balanced even though no approach was made to the captain of the other team as both Mr Watkin and Mr Larsen were approached and an attempt was made to speak to X.
In respect of alleged errors in the second article the newspaper stated:
It says it can substantiate the fact other umpires urged Mr Watkin not to put X straight into senior cricket.
A reference to another “rookie” standing with X came directly from a statement made by Mr Larsen. The newspaper accepts that the statement may not be correct but felt it was able to rely upon Mr Larsen’s comment.
It stands by the comment that Mr Watkin said he would not be talking and neither would the umpire.
In respect of the headline to the first article, The Dominion Post’s position is that while “sacked” is a strong description of the situation, this was what in fact happened. The umpire was in fact removed from the role.
The Dominion Post denies that it failed to make proper distinction between reporting the facts and conjecture, passing of opinions and comment. It did not give its own opinion but merely quoted from what it says the captain and Mr Watkin told them.
The issue reported on was a legitimate topic for a sports section of a newspaper. One club, and possibly both clubs, had complained about the standard of X’s umpiring. Unbeknown to The Dominion Post at the time of the articles the manager of one club had phoned Mr Watkin and complained to him about the standard of umpiring.
It is apparent that Mr Watkin was concerned at the possible publication of X’s name. He asked the reporter not to include the name. This is understandable, in a sport which struggles to recruit and maintain sufficient umpires. The Council notes that the story could have been run without naming the umpire, and that the publication of the umpire’s name arguably was detrimental to the wider interests of Wellington cricket. However, the naming of the umpire is not a specific matter of complaint and, notwithstanding the obvious downside in doing so, the newspaper was entitled to publish the name.
There are many factual allegations made by one or other of the parties in this matter which are denied by the other. One of those factual matters may have been resolved by production of the captain’s reports on the particular match. Mr Watkin was prepared to release those reports to the Council but not to The Dominion Post. The Council cannot determine matters on evidence not seen by a party. It cannot make a determination on some of the disputed facts.
There may have been a factual error in stating that seven ball overs were called but the newspaper was quoting what the captain said. A wide was called on a ball which was hit, albeit that there is a factual dispute as to the circumstances. The reference to another umpire being called a rookie may have been an error, but this again was a quote from a responsible cricket official. The other factual differences can not be resolved and there are no grounds upon which the complaint can be upheld on the basis of factual inaccuracies.
Prudence suggests that it may have been advisable to have consulted the second captain, but the reporter did obtain quotes from Mr Watkin, Mr Larsen and attempted to contact X. The circumstances, the Council does not find that the article lacked balance. It also notes that the second article was complimentary of the work which Mr Watkin had done for Cricket Wellington over many years.
In respect of the allegation that comment was not distinguished from fact, The Dominion Post says that it merely quoted what others said and this was made clear from the article. In general the Council agrees.
In the Council’s view the only matters of concern are the use of the words “dismissed” in the intro to the first article and the headline use of the word “sacked”. The normal meaning of “dismissed” and “sacked”, which are in many respects synonymous, in employment matters is that the term of employment has terminated.
Putting aside the question of whether or not X was an employee, the Council finds that the substance of the first article was not accurately and fairly conveyed by the use of the term “sacked”. The article suggested that X needed further training and “would not stand in the near future”. This does not suggest a dismissal from X’s role as an umpire. There is also unfairness in using this term in respect of a named umpire in the circumstances. The Council finds that the use of the word “sacked” infringes the requirement that the headline should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report.
For the reasons given above, the complaint is partially upheld on the use of “sacked” in the headline. The other complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.