D.O’ROURKE AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 726

Council Meeting: February 1999

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: The Press

The New Zealand Press Council has partially upheld a complaint against The Press newspaper by a Christchurch city councillor Denis O’Rourke.

Cr O’Rourke complained to the Press Council that an article written about the income of city councillors, and published last September, was unbalanced, incomplete, misleading, prejudicial and unfair. He said the article was aimed at three councillors out of 24, but particularly at him, and he invited the Press Council to adjudicate upon it in the terms of his complaint.

The Press Council said it could not uphold Cr O’Rourke’s complaints of prejudice, but that he had grounds for complaining that the article was incomplete, and thus unbalanced. It said the article offended by omission of salient information that would have helped readers better judge the merits of the issue the newspaper was raising.

The article Cr O’Rourke was unhappy with was published as a time when postal ballot papers were in voters’ hands. It was headed: “City councillors earn more than $1.25m” and reported the income paid to councillors from salaries, meeting allowances and directors’ fees from council-owned trading companies.

Cr O’Rourke was the councillor with the highest remuneration - $77,485 – which was the total of his council salary, meeting allowances and fees paid to him as a director of Christchurch International Airport

Two other councillors were mentioned in the article, which went on to include the views of the council’s city manager about the large amount of work some councillors put into representing constituents.

The editor defended the article. Ratepayers, he said, were understandably concerned about where their local body taxes were spent. They had a right to know what their representatives were paid, and Cr O’Rourke’s income was highlighted only because he had earned more than anyone else.

Unhappy at that response, Cr O’Rourke took his complaint to the Press Council where he repeated his displeasure and where the editor repeated his defence of the article. Cr O’Rouke reiterated his concern that the article was unfair and designed to be so, a claim the editor firmly rejected.

The Press Council partially upheld the complaint. While The Press had reported a matter of legitimate public interest at a time in the local body triennium when ratepayers were particularly attuned to local body affairs, rates and political information, it failed to give enough information.

The article had sought comment on councillors’ incomes from the city manager, who emphasised the amount of work some councillors undertook for constituents. Having reported that argument, the Press Council said, it believed it would then have been fairer to Cr O’Rourke if The Press had proceeded to report how his council remuneration had been calculated – that is, a certain sum was his annual council salary and the additional sum was derived from attending a specific number of council or committee meetings. A possible reading of the article was that in addition to the total remuneration reported, he had received further allowances for attending meetings, whereas the total figure included this aspect of remuneration. Explaining how the $77,485 was calculated, would have put his earnings into a fairer context.

It was a newspaper’s duty, the Council acknowledged, to bring matters of public spending to the attention of readers regularly. In doing so, however, they needed to ensure they did so fairly and in a balanced way with sufficient detail to allow the public to make an informed judgment.