Kookaburra magazine, the Kawau Island Resident and Ratepayers Association publication, in its Summer 2001 issue published a letter signed “Concerned Kawau Resident” (Name and address supplied).

The letter itself referred not to a previous article or letter in the magazine, but took issue with aspects of a story in the Rodney Times of March 1, “Islanders Clash Over Access Dispute”, concerning access to Kawau Island via private jetties.

A reader of Kookaburra magazine, Evelyn Kaye Gilbert, who describes herself as a member of the Coleman family, complained to the magazine editor about the letter making reference to the Coleman family, and the name and address of the writer being withheld.
Although the editor apologised personally to Mrs Gilbert for any distress the content of the letter may have caused her and her family, Mrs Gilbert was not satisfied. She complained to the Press Council that the letter breached the Statement of Principles on the grounds the letter was inaccurate, an invasion of privacy and contained deliberately misleading information.

In what the Rodney Times has described as a “neighbour dispute”, feelings have run high in a matter that appears to be long-running, involves litigation and has even been addressed by the Environment Court. In the letter at issue here, as in any dispute, there are differing interpretations claimed by both sides. Do we have “an internal roading system” or “ a “minor network of tracks”? Does the phrase “tie up the family launch” deliberately mislead by giving the impression of expense, as opposed to the view that the launch is simply moored and unseaworthy? Does a reference in the letter to a family not having financial constraints constitute an invasion of privacy or does it simply state the judgement of the letter writer?

The Press Council here focuses on the letter itself which is the subject of the complaint, and on the general principles which apply to letters to the editor. It is a given that a letter to the editor expresses the viewpoint of the writer; there is no requirement to rehearse the complete chapter and verse of an issue. One interpretation or view so expressed may displease those who hold the opposite; no letter is required to be more than its author’s perspective.

The letter in the magazine was no exception to these aspects of an individual letter to the editor. However, in a public interest issue, different sides need to be heard (there is never a single correct version of an issue). It was unfortunate that the alternative point of view was not available nor published. In a small community, the privileged position held by publications means that such balance is vital.

Letters published with a pseudonym are also no longer appropriate in almost every case in modern journalism. A magazine which is available for public subscription does a disservice to its readers and the general principle of robust editorial debate by concealing the names of letter writers.

Kookaburra magazine here was not sufficiently remiss in its behaviour to warrant the upholding of the complaint, but the standards observed were not those to be encouraged in best journalistic practice.


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