EILEEN VON DADELSZEN AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAYCouncillor Eileen von Dadelszen, a Hawke’s Bay Regional Councillor and deputy chairwoman, complained to the Press Council about three articles concerned with last year’s local body elections published in Hawke’s Bay Today, the local daily paper. Councillor von Dadelszen submitted a thoroughly prepared, well-argued written complaint and took the trouble to travel to Wellington and appear, at its meeting on 4 February 2002, before the Press Council in support of her complaint. For reasons set out hereafter the Council did not uphold her complaints.
In the lead-up to the 2001 local body elections, Hawke’s Bay Today published an article on September 11 headed “How did they do?”. The introduction, or standfirst, asked “How well have the current crop of Hawke’s Bay regional councillors served their constituencies? Hawke’s Bay Today reporter Tania McCauley reflects on the past term.”
The article that followed was in the style of a report card, giving the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council an overall rating of 8/10 (in the sub-heading to a separate introductory section), and individual councillors similar style of scores. Each of the nine councillors and the general manager was pictured in a small box which contained a descriptive and opinionated assessment of about 40-50 words.
A second article was headed “How our community representatives earned their money”, and was published on September 13. The newspaper ran a series of tables showing the meeting attendance, remuneration and meeting fees of councillors from the Hastings and Wairoa District Councils, the Napier City Council and Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.
The introduction said: “Community representation cost Hawke’s Bay ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past financial year. While council and community board members’ remuneration is set by central Government, what did our councillors do for their money? How many meetings did they attend? The councils supplied Hawke’s Bay Today with the tables below.”
A third article, in the form of a letter from the editor, was headed “ ‘HB Today’ contributing to voters’ choice” and referred to the “ruckus” raised by the council report cards. The editor defended the articles on the grounds of freedom and opinion as part of the newspaper’s promise to make the elections more interesting. He denied the newspaper had behaved disgracefully or interfered with the electoral process and in an unapologetic note said the paper intended to make the report cards a regular feature.
Councillor Eileen von Dadelszen, one of those mentioned in the reports, complained to the editor about the first article, saying that the headline and sub-headline did not accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they were designed to cover, noting that while the article purported to assess “how well they served their constituencies” it was in fact about performance at monthly council meetings.
She felt the article should have referred to work done by councillors outside the meetings. Councillor von Dadelszen said she accepted freedom of expression and the right of the editor to use a “patently subjective” article. There were some lesser complaints such as the general manager of the council, by picture and report card, ranking equally with elected councillors, and mention of the complainant as having “a superior tone”, the meaning of which she did not understand. The points are arguable but really a matter of choice for the editor.
Her criticism of the second article was that the headline and comments were not accurate and misled and misinformed by omission. She said the article as published provided inaccurate information by omitting to explain the meaning of the information provided, especially in relation to the many rules about the definitions of meetings, council committees, attendance provisions, attendance rates, speaking rights, and so on.
She thought the letter from the editor misled and misinformed and was intimidating, although the strongly expressed views were in a clearly labelled opinion piece that could be accepted, or not, by the readers.
The report card format, necessarily a subjective and summary assessment on the model of teachers’ reports, may be controversial but is legitimate and not unusual in newspapers. The newspaper commendably published many letters which offered all the arguments for and against this style of article, showing the effect of the newspaper’s promise to make election coverage more interesting. Councillor von Dadelszen’s own published contribution pointed out how much of the councillors’ work had been omitted, and how the questions of “how councillors served their constituencies” or “how they earned their money” were inadequately addressed.
Councillor von Dadelszen’s complaint to the Press Council reiterates her views, but the nub is the impression given by the headlines and the introductions that follow in the first article.
The editor knew what he was doing. Councillor von Dadelszen picks out the phrase from the letter from the editor article which said the report cards were an accurate or valid way of “finding how councillors performed at council meetings” (not “how they served their constituencies”). She also notes that, in a letter to her, the editor says the second article was “simply to show what each councillor costs ratepayers in fees claimed” which is a much more specific result than what councillors did “to earn their money.”
The first headline “How did they do?” is perfectly acceptable for the report card that follows. The sub-editor’s approach to the introduction (“… how well… councillors served their constituencies”) could have been more pointed, but if council service includes the capable discharge of public meeting duties then this wording for the average reader would incorporate the performance ratings which followed. The many phrases relating to meetings in each “report” -- “a listener not a talker”, “pretty active in debates”, “thinking before speaking”, “a stickler for standing orders”, “well versed in council procedure” – quickly establish the context of council meetings which this article was about.
A reasonable reader going from headline to introduction to report cards assessing how councillors served at meetings should not have been misled. Newspapers carry out ongoing normal local body reporting about different council matters throughout the year; the topic and approach in this single report was within the ambit of a newspaper’s varied brief.
In the second article, the context supplied by tables of meeting allowances and attendances, another normal newspaper approach, does not contradict the heading “How our community representatives earned their money.” The introductory sentences, read together, are clear: “ ... what did our councillors do for their money? How many meetings did they attend?”. The article complained of was not a complete and detailed picture of a councillor’s life, but earning money from meetings is an important public facet of it.
Reports in the news pages of the press are of necessity a snapshot for the day. They can be followed up, corrected, expanded, commented on by letters to the editor or developed in other articles where the editor deems it necessary. It is a counsel of perfection that a single newspaper article and its headline or introduction should carefully and exactly encompass the minutiae which council papers, reports or minutes of meetings can do in thousands of words. Newspapers have to share their quota of space and words among dozens of different subjects and stories in a much more compact and focused way.
The complaint is not upheld.