FOXTON RSA AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTAnne Hunt, on behalf of the Foxton RSA, complained about a report published in The Dominion Post. She argued that the newspapers had not produced a fair and balanced report and had misled their readers. Her complaint is upheld.
The report first appeared on the stuff website on 30 August 2012 and was also printed in The Dominion Post on the same date.
The article outlined a fraught series of complaint and counter-complaint within the membership of the Foxton RSA.
The reporter noted that the trouble had started “about a year ago” and gave examples, and then summarized the comments of (at least) three members who all claimed that the tensions were ongoing.
The report appeared under the headline “ ‘Short shorts’ add to RSA tensions”.
Its opening read “Complaints of bullying and intimidation continue at Foxton RSA after a member who objected to a young woman wearing ‘short shorts’ had a dismembered chicken dumped in her letterbox”.
At the end of the report, the club’s Vice-president, Anne Hunt, argued that the club had turned around after the problems of the past and pointed to positive progress. She was extensively quoted.
The “interview” with Anne Hunt was carried out via e-mail.
In her initial complaint to the newspaper, Anne Hunt claimed that she had only been invited to respond to general concerns raised rather than the specific points mentioned in the report. In particular, she should have been given the chance to comment on the claims that the executive should “resign and go to the poll”.
She also stressed that, overall, the article was misleading in that almost all the concerns occurred more than a year previously, and although she had pointed out to the reporter that they were historical in nature, they had been reported as current issues.
Later, in her formal complaint to the Press Council, she stressed that “even a factually-correct article can leave misleading impressions” ie the reporter had concentrated on issues from the past which only served to bring the RSA into disrepute.
The Newspaper’s Response
In its first response to Anne Hunt, the newspaper argued that her reported comments added balance to the criticism of the executive apparent in the article.
Further, the substantive points raised had been put to her and a right of reply does not extend to countering every single opinion expressed in an article.
Finally, the incidents reported had been “clearly dated” throughout.
In a later response to the Press Council, the editor reiterated that the article took care to date the incidents.
She also claimed that Anne Hunt had nominated herself as the official spokesperson for the RSA.
She pointed out that material supplied to the Press Council by Anne Hunt herself confirmed that “disciplinary proceedings were indeed being pursued with gusto, with six formal disciplinary hearings being taken against accused members for the month of August alone”.
She stressed that it was obvious that some members had concerns about the management of the RSA and those concerns had been put to Anne Hunt for comment. Her comments had been fairly and accurately reported.
Anne Hunt noted that rather than being a “self-appointed spokesperson” she had been appointed by the Foxton RSA Executive as Communications Officer on June 23, 2012.
She argued that it was incorrect to claim that the incidents had been clearly dated because the lead supplied no date alongside the reference to the “short shorts” incident, and consequently the description of the “dismembered chicken” incident happening “soon afterwards” became meaningless in terms of timing. Finally, the “f word” incident was also undated.
All these matters occurred a year before the article had been published.
Finally, the disciplinary hearings for August that seemed to so concern the Editor had taken place in August 2011, not 2012.
The editor, in a final submission, argued that the intro stated that “complaints continue at Foxton RSA” because that was the view of the members interviewed for the article. The dissatisfaction is current and not merely historical.
The reporter had not relied on one member’s criticism, rather she had included the views of others, including two former presidents of the club.
Discussion and Decision
The complaint about a lack of balance is rejected.
The Press Council is satisfied that several members of the club were dissatisfied with the executive and their substantive criticisms were put to the complainant and she was given considerable space in a short report for her countering views.
Further, as the newspaper noted earlier, a right of reply does not usually extend to comment on every single opinion.
However, the Council was more concerned about the allegation that the report misled readers, because it failed to identify, at least with any clarity, that so many of the incidents that were mentioned occurred about a year before.
Throughout, the timing of events is handled clumsily.
Readers of the intro (“Complaints . . . continue . . . after a member who objected to ‘short shorts’ had a dismembered chicken dumped in her letterbox”) must have surmised that this would have happened recently. It is not until the seventh paragraph that they learn that it was “last year” when a complaint was made about “short shorts” in the bar and further learn, three paragraphs later, that it was “shortly afterwards” that the complainant received a dismembered chicken in her letterbox. These events occurred around August 2011.
Further on, one disgruntled member voices concerns about a petty approach to bad language . . . “one lady was stood down because someone thought they saw her mouth say the f-word” but the reader does not know that this also happened in August 2011, not 2012.
All the incidents outlined in the first half of the article occurred either in May 2012 or in August 2011, though that is not at all clear to the reader.
The second part of the article is given to the comments by the dissatisfied members and to the balancing comment by Anne Hunt, but the criticism by the members is general in nature, such as “We have RSA members . . . who do not come to the club anymore” and “If something does not change, it will close down”. The only specific examples as evidence for this general sense of unease are the historical incidents.
Finally, and most importantly, the heading – ‘Short shorts’ add to RSA tensions – lends considerable weight to Anne Hunt’s complaint that historical events were being presented as if they were still current issues. Certainly headlines traditionally do use the present tense but this happened in the distant past, not the recent past. It is difficult to see how the newspaper could justify this unfortunate headline.
The headline is not only wrong, coupled with the undated incident in the intro, it is misleading to readers.
For those reasons, the complaint about a consequent lack of fairness is upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.