DONNA FAVEL AGAINST ASHBURTON GUARDIAN

Case Number: 2866

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2020

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Ashburton Guardian

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Politicians

Overview

[1] On September 12, 2019 the Ashburton Guardian published an opinion piece“How much is too much to run a team”. On September 14, 2019 it published a further article“Expenses rocket up for mayor and councillors”. Donna Favel complains that these articles breach Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4: Comment and Fact; and, Principle 12: Corrections.

The Articles

[2] “How much is too much to run a team” appeared on an opinion page of theAshburton Guardian as an editorial. Authored by one of the paper’s senior reporters she compared the spending of the then Ashburton District Council against previous administrations. In her opinion, although the current council had spent more than its immediate predecessor this was generally justifiable. However, she challenged the need for Donna Favel (the then mayor) to “have her own PA”. The piece finished by noting that although the PA works for others in the governance team, previous mayors “got by without one” and suggests that if a PA is necessary the mayor pay for it herself.

[3] “Expenses rocket up for mayor and councillors” (authored by the senior reporter who wrote the editorial) compared the expenses of the then mayor and councillors against those of their immediate predecessors. In particular, it noted that an additional cost “was the appointment of a mayoral PA (at the mayor’s request)”. It also noted that the mayor shared the PA’s time with a three-person governance team, the council’s chief executive and councillors as needed. It also notes that the cost is recorded against the council’s governance function and is not costed separately to the mayor.

The Complaint

[4] Donna Favel was the Mayor of the Ashburton District Council at the time the pieces were published. She complains that both pieces contain inaccuracies. In particular, she states that the “PA to the Mayor” position was disestablished in June 2018. Moreover, although there had been a position by that name, three departments of the council were to benefit from it and share the costs. The title reflected the fact that, in part, the role was to assist with the institutional knowledge lost by the departure of a long-serving PA to the previous Mayor. She appears to suggest that, although the functions undertaken by that position are now undertaken by a position located in the wider governance team, thefailure to note the disestablishment of the ‘PA to the Mayor’ position left the reader with the impression that she had a PA at her exclusive disposal (which she had requested), when that had never been the case.

[5] Ms Favel notes that she met with the editor of the Ashburton Guardian on September 18, 2019, advised him of the inaccuracies and requested a correction. She followed up twice by email requesting correction. She further notes that, although the author of both of the pieces explicitly (in the first) and impliedly (in the second) suggests that no previous mayors had personal assistants, in 2013 the same reporter wrote an article on the departure of a long-serving PA to a succession of mayors.

The Response

[6] In response the editor of the Ashburton Guardian accepts that he met with Ms Favel on September 18, 2019. The editor states that he did not agree to publish a correction, but that he did undertake to discuss the matter with the reporter and ask her to contact Ms Favel.

[7] The reporter contacted Ms Favel immediately. The reporter expressed her concern at the suggestion she was incorrect in saying that Ms Favel did not request an assistant. She points to earlier reporting of a council meeting in early 2017 where Ms Favel requested money for an executive assistant on the basis that her mayoral ‘style’ was different and that the necessary support could not be provided with the shared resources other mayors had used. Ms Favel responded to the reporter by email asserting that she did not request support, and noting that the PA to the Mayor position was disestablished in 2018, was never personal to her and those tasks are now undertaken by a staff member in the general governance team. Ms Favel concluded with the concession that for the 2017/2018 year there was an additional cost to provide assistance to her as a first term mayor (although the cost benefited three departments).

[8] The editor notes that while he was copied into Ms Favel’s response at no point in it did she specifically request a correction. Moreover, he considered that Ms Favel’s concession that there had been an additional cost meant that was the end of the subject. He also states that the Ashburton Guardian had no record that the role of “PA to the Mayor” had been disestablished in June 2018, and the reporter had no personal knowledge as she was on leave at the time.

[9] In relation to the second article, the editor notes that the statement “an additional cost during this council term was the appointment of a mayoral PA (at the Mayor’s request)” was a correct statement because for the first 12 months of the mayor’s tenure this was an additional cost. Moreover, the next sentence went on to inform readers that the role was now shared.

[10] The editor accepts that he did not respond to Ms Favel’s email requesting a correction on September 25, 2019; he states he can find no record of the email and he presumes that he accidentally deleted it. However, he would not have agreed to print a correction as he did not believe that there was any inaccuracy that needed correction.

The Decision

The editorial of September 12, 2019

[11] Media Council Principle 4 – Comment and Fact states:

A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

[12] We take Ms Favel’s first complaint about the editorial to be that it suggests that she had her own, exclusive, mayoral PA. However, the Media Council does not consider that this aspect of the editorial was inaccurate. It states “… one cost that is still open to challenge is the need for her [Mayor Favel] to have her own PA. Yes, that person also works for others in the governance team …”. This appears to accurately describe the position. Although the ‘PA to the Mayor’ position was disestablished in 2018 there remained a role within the council that provided personal assistance to the mayor, as well as to others within the council.

[13] Ms Favel’s second complaint about this editorial was the statement that “Yes, that person also works for others in the governance team, but mayors of the past have always got by without one”. While the statement was made in the context of an editorial opinion, the Media Council considers this was a material fact and it was inaccurate. The error of fact which has led to this decision being upheld is, on review, obvious. The reporter who wrote that past mayors did not have PAs had previously written a story about a mayoral PA - albeit one who also acted as PA for other senior staff. Mayors of the past have not “always” got by without a PA. Media Council Principle 12: Corrections indicates that significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. The Media Council considers that this was an error that ought to have been corrected promptly, especially in the lead up to local body elections. This decision may provide an opportunity for the Ashburton Guardian to review its analysis and handling of complaints.

Media Council Principle 4 – Comment and Fact: upheld

Media Council Principle 12 – Corrections: upheld

The article of 14 September 2019

[14] Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance states that:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

[15] The complaint in relation to this article centres on the statement that an additional cost during the council term “was the appointment of a mayoral PA (at the mayor’s request)”. Ms Favel in her email response to the reporter who authored the article appears to dispute that as mayor she specially requested this position. Nonetheless, the reporter referred to newspaper reports from the time of the 2017 meeting where the “PA to the Mayor” position was discussed, which suggest that the mayor did request an assistant. The Media Council is in no position to resolve this factual dispute. However, we do consider that the reporter was entitled to rely on the earlier reports she had access to.

[16] There is also no inaccuracy in relation to the description of the personal assistant role in this article. Although there is no longer a “PA to the Mayor” the mayor retained a personal assistant and it is made clear that that person’s time is shared among others in the organisation and that the cost is recorded against the council’s governance function and not costed separately to the mayor. We also note that Ms Favel is quoted throughout the article and has clearly been given the chance to comment on its content.

Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance: not upheld

Summary

[17] The complaint is in part upheld. The editorial stated that previous Mayors did not have PAs. Given that the focus of this part of the article was that when she became Mayor Ms Favel had a PA, this would have reflected badly on her. The implication that followed was that she had created a cost for her convenience not enjoyed by her predecessors. In fact the allegation of no previous PAs was plainly wrong and this was known, or should have been known, to the reporter. Worse, when the error was pointed out it was not corrected. Plainly it should have been.

[18] The other aspects of the complaint are not upheld for the reasons set out above.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.