Masterton District Councillor Dermot Payton and Masterton Residents and Ratepaters’ Association president Brian Gawith have charged the Wairarapa Times-Age with a “regrettable failure” to investigate and present, “over a number of years, an unbiased and fair coverage on many controversial issues.”

It has already been conveyed to Mr Payton and Mr Gawith that such generalised complaints are beyond the scope of the Press Council. But they then make specific complaints about two articles.

In the first of these, a news item of October 1, 2001, it is reported, among other things, that Cr Payton had “joined criticism” of a proposed recreation centre upgrade by attacking his own chief executive officer. The article quotes Mr Payton as claiming errors in the collation of public submissions on the subject, then gives space to a rebuttal by Mayor Bob Francis.

In the second item, an opinion piece under the byline “Chief Reporter”, dated 6 October, Mr Payton is criticised for, the article says, belatedly joining the anti-upgrade bandwagon shortly before an election. It also claims that Mr Payton had attacked the inclusion of letters from school children within the submissions – and that he had “admitted” not reading all the submissions before the relevant council meeting.

The Times-Age subsequently published a lengthy, strong and, at times, personal letter from Mr Payton (October 9) putting his side of the issue. Mr Payton and Mr Gawith, however, say the publication was entirely inadequate in redressing what they believe to be the newspaper’s “bias and ignorance”.

It should be noted that in their letters to the Times-Age’s editor Andrew Wyatt, the two men praise staff who they perceived as writing favourably. They have kind words for a particular columnist for his contributions which, they say, “have gone a long way toward damage control”. “The great pity,” they say, “is the absence, over the past decade or more (one exception aside), of any such sane contributor”.

In response Mr Wyatt simply stands by the accuracy of the October 1 news article and defends the October 6 piece as a legitimate opinion column. He also points out that he personally discussed the two men’s concerns about alleged bias with them.

He not only rejected the allegations, but allowed Mr Payton the chance in his October 9 letter to answer the opinion piece’s criticisms.

For the following reasons, the complaints are not upheld. The published letter states that, in the submissions row, Mr Payton and Mr Gawith had been concerned about the “process, not the numbers”. But that point is raised in the article. Both sides of a complicated issue are reported in a small news article.

The October 6 column, as an opinion piece, also escapes censure. It is unfortunate that Mr Wyatt has not defended the two allegations of inaccuracy – statements that Mr Payton had criticised the school children’s submissions being included and that he had admitted nor reading the submissions. But nevertheless he did give them ample space in his pages to put their side.

The breadth of the Times-Age coverage – and its conclusions – might be deemed inadequate and wrong to parties believing strongly in a contrary stance. But the newspaper has a right to form its own opinions and take a stance. This is especially the case in an opinion column.

The newspaper has subsequently given leeway for the debate to continue – and be clarified. And at least some of its writers have shown agreement with Mr Payton and Mr Gawith.

The complaint is not upheld.


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