DR LOCKWOOD SMITH AGAINST THE SUNDAY STAR TIMES

Case Number: 603

Council Meeting: MARCH 1996

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

A complaint by Dr Lockwood Smith, Minister of Education, against the Sunday Star-Times has been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

The minister complained through his Press Secretary Matthew Hooton against an editorial in the newspaper published on 12 November about a speech the minister had made in Canada. The editorial included the sentence.."speaking in Vancouver the minister declared he would like to see the end of all direct funding of state schools. " The complaint, to which the text of the speech was attached, alleged that the minister had made no such statement. The council found on studying the speech that in fact such a statement had not been made or implied.

The speech and editorial were concerned with the New Zealand experience in education reform and dealt with the important question of who should decide what school a student was to attend. The minister argued strongly that the choice should be made by the parent and not by the state. The editorial took the opposite view considering among other points, that in many cases parents did not have enough information to make informed choices. The editorial also described the minister's proposal as a voucher system although the term voucher had not been used in the speech. While the system advocated by the minister was compatible with a voucher scheme, a term commonly used to describe such arrangements, there were several other techniques which enabled the transfer of decision-making about school choice from state to parents while maintaining direct funding of state schools.

The editor, in a discussion with Mr Hooton in which Mr Hooton requested a retraction and apology and which appeared not to have been wholly amicable, offered the minister a right of reply and suggested 300 words as a length. The minister did not regard this proposal as adequate in respect of a statement in an editorial attributed to but never made by the minister, and complained to the Press Council. It was said that the statement attributed to Dr Smith was very damaging to his relationship with the education sector.

In his final reply to the editor's statement Mr Hooton urged the council to request the Sunday Star-Times to publish a correction and apology on the grounds that a letter to the editor does not adequately redress the imbalance. While a correction and apology might have been appropriate at the time, it is not the council's practice to go beyond its adjudication.

The Council concluded that in this case the editorial by attributing an important statement to the minister which he had not made, went beyond acceptable standards. The complaint has therefore been upheld.