Diane Chandler‘s complaint is against the publication of a letter to the editor in The Nelson Mail. She argues that this letter published in response to one by her contravened Council principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – and principle 4 – Comment and Fact. By a majority of 8:3 the complaint is not upheld.

Ms Chandler’s letter (17 August) related to the Nelson City Council’s review of its dog control policy and her perception, when exercising in the Stoke railway reserve, that the Council was not aware of the hazard to cyclists of free roaming dogs. For this reason she suggested that those involved in or witnessing such incidents should report them on the phone number 0800 CYCLE CRASH. The Mail gave a heading to her letter ‘Ensuring safer paths’. The Mail published a letter in reply (from P. King, 23 August) which set out a number of ‘rules’ which, it stated, Ms Chandler had made for those using ‘her’ reserve. It was this letter which Diane Chandler complained about.

Mr King’s letter does not directly respond to the particular issue that Ms Chandler addressed in her letter of 17 August. Rather it expresses his opinion that her letters to the Mail with references to the Stoke Railway Reserve show a proprietorial attitude. The editor, replying to Ms Chandler’s complaint (30 August), wrote ‘it is certainly not our policy to allow any letters which publicly attack any individual’, but went on, ‘I don’t believe the two letters we published in response to yours are too personal’. Four days later he wrote to her that he believed Mr King’s letter was satirical. In his later response to the formal complaint he changed this to ‘facetious’.

Among Ms Chandler’s ‘rules’, as listed by Mr King, is ‘No allowing one’s dog to smell the roses’. This is clearly inaccurate, but in a way which lends support to the editor’s view that Mr King’s letter should not be taken literally, though ‘whimsical’ might more accurately characterise it than the editor’s ‘satirical’ or ‘facetious’.

Press Council Principles stress that editors have considerable freedom in selecting and treating letters for publication, and the Council recognises that the Letters to the Editor section gives scope to individual correspondents to express strongly partisan, even prejudiced, views. It has also noted, however, that this section “is not to be the forum for personal attacks” (See Adjudication 2087). The borderline between a criticism of someone’s views and an ad hominem attack can be a fine one. In this case the Council judges Mr King’s letter to have been close to that line but not over it.

The complaint is not upheld by a majority of Council members.

John Roughan, Tim Beaglehole and Stephen Stewart dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.


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