FRANK KELLY AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES
The New Zealand Press Council had not upheld a complaint against an Otago Daily Times report about a clash between a councillor and a member of the public at Dunedin City Council annual plan hearings.
Frank Kelly complained that a report in the May 8, 2009 edition headlined Adversaries in blunt exchange was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced.
The report said the hearings “descended from a polite, if somewhat strained discussion, into shouting and fingerpointing” when Cr Richard Walls clashed with Mr Kelly, who was among those making submissions on the annual plan.
The report said Mr Kelly “evidently” had a long history of acrimony with staff and councillors, and had started his submissions in “fiery form” and attacked the consultation process, rent rises on council housing and council staff.
It also recorded how councillors had taken issue with Mr Kelly and that Cr Walls, who had said “the history” between himself and Mr Kelly went back to the early 1990s, had apologised for his behaviour.
Mr Kelly complained to the editor of the newspaper that the report had not included other details of Cr Walls’ attack on him; particularly that the councillor had made disparaging personal comments and that he had attacked him without provocation.
He also wanted space for a rebuttal, and said he did not trust the newspaper to publish a fair and impartial representation of a letter.
Responding to Mr Kelly on June 11, the Editor, Murray Kirkness, said his reporter had no recollection of the specific verbal attack mentioned by Mr Kelly. The clash had been short, noisy and confusing, and the reporter restricted his report to what he knew. The published report was not intended to portray Mr Kelly in a bad light.
In his complaint to the Council, Mr Kelly said the report lacked accuracy, fairness, balance “and perhaps I should add: truth.”
He criticised the reporter for not recording what Cr Walls had called him, that the councillor was pointing at him and shouting and that the Mayor had left his chair to pacify the “out of control” councillor.
Such details should have been recorded in the interests of accuracy and balance. Instead, the reporter had devoted column space to portray him in a poor light.
He had approached the editor to correct the errors but had been unsuccessful. He queried how the reporter knew he had “a long history of acrimony with staff and councillors” and he should have been approached to verify the accuracy of such a claim. The article mixed comment and fact.
It was also ambiguous in that referring to Cr Walls’ apology, the reporter gave the impression that “his” behaviour applied to Mr Kelly.
He accepted that newspaper proprietors could determine content but he did not accept that truth could be distorted without sanction. He also noted the Press Council’s principle that publications should not mislead or misinform readers by commission, or omission.
The Newspaper’s Response
In his response, Mr Kirkness said he had spoken twice by telephone to Mr Kelly after the report was published, and had told him the reporter had no clear recollection of the personal allegation.
The published report was not intended to show anyone in a bad light. It was a seven-paragraph account of a short altercation during the annual plan hearings, to which the newspaper devoted about 55 broadsheet columns.
He had suggested Mr Kelly write a letter for consideration for publication but this had not been taken up. Mr Kelly had claimed letters were censored, but the editor rejected that.
Responding to the editor, Mr Kelly said he was not an adversary of Cr Walls, but gave details of how some years before he had challenged Cr Walls, who was then mayor, on the costs of a trip to a sister city, Edinburgh.
He repeated his criticism of the reporter failing to include further details within the article and his failure to approach him for comment.
Discussion and Decision
The article is a brief account of a clash between a councillor and Mr Kelly at the planning hearings, during which Mr Kelly expressed fierce criticism of some past events and staff.
The Press Council has always defended the right of publications to determine what they publish. While the newspaper might have included more detail about the clash, the fact that the reporter chose not to do so does not make the article itself inaccurate, unbalanced, unfair or untruthful.
Nor does there appear to be any distortion through omission. The newspaper said the reporter did not hear the remark Mr Kelly mentioned and, over the time of the hearings, the clash was not a major event. It would have been stretching the importance of the incident if the reporter had delved further into Mr Kelly’s past differences with the council.
Mr Kelly was invited to put forward a letter for consideration for publication and chose not to do so. It is unfair to turn down such an opportunity and then accuse an editor of possible censorship. In a suitable form, such a letter would have redressed any imbalance.
Mr Kelly seems to agree with Cr Walls that their disagreements go back to the early 1990s, so there was justification for the reporter writing of a “long history of acrimony.” The report required some explanation of what had triggered the incident and the reporter’s mention of a “long history,” while a comment, was justified for context.
Also, as details within the report showed, and Mr Kelly appears to acknowledge, the use of the word adversaries in the headline is accurate.
If Mr Kelly had written a letter for publication, such matters could have been clarified.
The Press Council believes the average reader would have considered that Cr Walls was apologising for his own behaviour.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.