The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by De Wet Blaauw against the Eastern Courier newspaper.

On November 12, 2010, the Eastern Courier newspaper published an article discussing action taken by Howick College to combat allegations of bullying at the College. The article cited principal Iva Ropati as stating that in a recent case of a student being sent back to South Africa because of claims that she was being bullied at the College, they had taken the allegations seriously but ‘found no evidence of bullying’.
There had been articles relating to the alleged bullying previously published in the New Zealand Herald covering the allegations and indicating that Mr Blaauw was disappointed in a meeting he had had with the school, which, in his opinion, dealt with the matter as an isolated incident whereas Mr Blaauw thought there was a more widespread problem.
These articles were not, however, specifically referred to in the Courier report, which merely mentioned ‘media reports’ that the college ‘has a problem’.
The day that the article was published, Mr Blaauw wrote to Melanie Verran of SNL (Suburban Newspapers Ltd) complaining about the article which he claimed was biased, and took only the school’s point of view into consideration. A ‘Big Stand’ anti-bullying group featured in the Courier article was news to Mr Blaauw despite his having complained to the school about bullying of their daughter.
Ms Verran forwarded the email to editor Janet Taylor of the Eastern Courier, who replied on 15 November that the article had set out to determine the school’s response to bullying rather than to focus on ‘stories that had been in other media’.
Ms Taylor indicated in her reply that she did understand Mr Blaauw’s concerns about bullying, as her own daughter had been bullied and she resolved the situation satisfactorily by locating her daughter elsewhere. She hoped that ‘it all works out’ for Mr Blaauw’s family also.
A further series of emails between Ms Taylor and Mr Blaauw failed to resolve his concerns and Mr Blaauw claimed that the paper’s article was ‘sensationalist’; that his daughter had been targeted on Facebook; and that ‘it seems that you want to cause hurt and humiliation’ because his two sons were being targeted in another school now.
Ms Taylor responded promptly to this further complaint, explaining that the paper was focusing on the school’s handling of allegations of bullying; that the story was not sensationalist; and that neither the principal nor the paper had suggested that Mr Blaauw’s daughter was lying. He was invited to write a letter to the editor if he wished.

The Complaint
Mr Blaauw was dissatisfied with Ms Taylor’s response and lodged a complaint with the Press Council on 10 December. In the complaint he stated that the article suggested his daughter was ‘fabricating the incidents’; was biased towards the school, and that none of the parents whose children were allegedly being bullied had been approached in the writing of the article.
His complaint alleged that principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; privacy; children and young people; confidentiality; and conflicts of interest had been breached.

The Newspaper’s Response
A full response was received from Ms Taylor, outlining the various steps through which the process had gone, and providing supplementary articles on the issue by other media. Ms Taylor reiterated that the article was focused on the school, not on previous allegations. ‘We decided to do a story so that the families…would know the school’s position’.
The paper had chosen not to name the student because the effect on her was ‘paramount throughout the newsgathering process.’
Queries raised by Mr Blaauw about the accuracy of reporting of the principal’s comments were rebutted, with a formal letter from the principal being submitted to back this claim. The editor had also listened to the reporter’s recording and shared her confidence that her article was accurate.

The Complainant’s Response
In his final response, Mr Blaauw reiterated that he believed that the article had presented only the school’s view and that it had not mentioned a number of parents who had complained about bullying. He stated that despite his daughter’s name not being used, local people would still know who was being referred to in relation to the bullying complaint, and maintained that ‘the article clearly insinuated that my daughter fabricated the facts’.

It is clear from both Mr Blaauw’s correspondence and Ms Taylor’s reply that having a child being bullied is a very upsetting experience.
However, the paper acted appropriately in seeking to present the school’s responses to allegations of bullying. Its featuring of the Big Stand committee, a student-led initiative to raise awareness of bullying and how it might be challenged, was a positive step.
The article did not, as Mr Blaauw alleged, suggest that his daughter had been lying; rather Mr Ropati’s comment indicates that insufficient evidence was found to take further action in her specific situation. This is borne out in Mr Blaauw’s final response when he quoted Mr Ropati’s comment that ‘I did not deny that something happened to their daughter but did not accept that we have a culture of bullying.’
A newspaper has a responsibility to its own community to ensure that, when emotional issues such as bullying are raised, albeit by other media, information on a school’s response to such allegations is made known widely.

The Press Council did not find that the article breached any of its principles. However it is not always wise to rely on readers having read other media for the full story. The article could have explored parents’ complaints of bullying and provided additional comment from the college's community.
However, the newspaper chose to develop the angle of what the school had done in response to the claims of bullying, and that is their right.

The complaint is therefore not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Sandy Gill took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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