FRIENDS OF TAINUI RESERVE AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 2867

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Overview

[1] On November 6, 2019, Hawke’s Bay Today published a letter from Jeremy Cole, of the Tainui Reserve Care Group, headedMinority group halting progress at Tainui Reserve. The letter described volunteers’ work in the park and said that a recently built cycle track had attracted a new generation of users to the park. The letter continued: “However, it is understood that a planned return uphill track has been put on hold due to complaints by a very small minority group about cyclists.”

The Complaint

[2] Jessica Maxwell, co-ordinator of the Friends of Tainui Reserve group, complained thatHawke’s Bay Today did not check Mr Cole’s letter for accuracy and it was factually incorrect.

[3] It was untrue that the group was responsible for stopping the track work, Ms Maxwell said. A member of the public noticed track work commencing. She informed Ms Maxwell who alerted the council. Work was then stopped as it was not permitted under the Reserve Management Plan. It was the council that stopped the work, Ms Maxwell said. The Friends of Tainui Reserve Group was in recess at the time. The track work was stopped on August 12 and the group did not reconvene until August 31.

[4] Ms Maxwell particularly objected to the heading Minority group halting progress at Tainui Reserve which she said turned an incorrect assertion into a statement of fact. The heading was provocative and pitted bikers against walkers, damaging the group’s reputation.

[5] She also complained that it was incorrect to say the group was “a very small minority”. Ms Maxwell said she had collected 100 signatures from concerned reserve users in just a few hours. Others had since expressed similar concerns.

[6] Ms Maxwell also said that the editor of the paper was a keen mountain-biker and that he had abused his position by not publishing material that reflected badly on mountain-bikers.

[7] Ms Maxwell initially submitted a letter to the editor on November 6 outlining her concerns, which was not published, and followed this up with a complaint on November 15, when she said she did not want the letter published as it was now outdated. She requested an apology and correction.

The Response

[8] In his response to the formal complaint, the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today said that the letter writer expressed the view that the group was halting progress in the reserve. The editor said Ms Maxwell acknowledged making the complaint and said it was on behalf of a member of the public, so should not be considered a Jessica Maxwell/Friends of Tainui Reserve complaint. He offered Ms Maxwell the chance to clarify this via a letter.

[9] On the question of whether the group represented a small minority, Ms Maxwell seemed to be asserting that the number of people who signed the petition equated to the size of the group, the editor said. He saw no correlation, said the size of the group was a subjective matter and believed Mr Cole’s opinion was fair and he was entitled to express it.

[10] Regarding the headline, the editor said it was clearly placed under the sub-heading “Letters” and the page was clearly marked “Opinion”. He conceded that the heading might have been better if it had been written with a question mark at the end, but because it was on an opinion page it was defensible.

[11] Ms Maxwell requested an apology, but she did not agree to the wording of a clarification suggested byHawke’s Bay Today and this did not go ahead.

[12] The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today also offered Ms Maxwell the chance to have a letter of response published covering all three matters she raised, but she declined, saying: “Previously when I have put facts, not fiction, into a Letter to the Editor, the pro-mountain bike lobby aren’t interested in reading the truth and go off on their own rants and personal attacks, so I am not interested in submitting a further letter on this issue.” She also said she had been subject to verbal abuse by mountain bikers.

[13] The editor noted that Ms Maxwell was a passionate community advocate who had highlighted what she said was widespread concern about the use of the Tainui Reserve by mountain bikers and the illegal/inappropriate construction of tracks.Hawke’s Bay Today had published two guest columns by Ms Maxwell on the issue and she had featured in two news stories, so her views had been well expressed in the paper. The editor denied Ms Maxwell’s assertion that he was biased towards mountain bikers, saying this was demonstrated by the publication of Ms Maxwell’s views in Hawke’s Bay Today.

[14] He believed offering Ms Maxwell a letter to the editor to put her views was appropriate and the offer of a clarification was over and above what was required.

The Decision

[15] Ms Maxwell complained that the letter and headline were inaccurate, so this complaint has been considered under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. But Principle 5 relating to Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters is also relevant. It says that letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest.

[16] The consideration of this complaint raises the question of the degree to which publications can be expected to fact check the content of letters. Letters to the editor are an important vehicle for freedom of expression, offering individuals the opportunity to share their viewpoints in a robust way and dispute points raised by others. It would be unreasonable to expect publications to check every fact pre-publication. However, when significant errors of fact are revealed there is a responsibility on the publication to correct these. The most appropriate way to do this is often through a response in the letters to the editor column. In more serious cases it may be appropriate to publish a factual correction.

[17] In this case there were two factual matters in question. Was the group a “very small minority” and did it stop the track work? It should be noted that the letter did not actually mention the group, Friends of Tainui Reserve, by name, but both the complainant and the newspaper seem to accept that this is the group referred to in the letter. It is impossible to determine the size of the group, so it is a reasonable opinion for the letter writer to express. The situation regarding stopping the track work is less clear-cut. However given that the complaint about the track work was passed on to the council by Ms Maxwell (albeit originally from a third party and at a time the group was in recess) it is not unreasonable for the letter writer to suggest that a complaint by opponents of the mountain bike tracks played a part in stopping the work.

[18] The best course of action would have been to allow Ms Maxwell to put her point of view in a letter to the editor. The Media Council notes that there was no explanation given about why Ms Maxwell’s November 6 letter to the editor was not published and, if it had been, that would have adequately addressed any concerns. However, once she formally complained to the newspaper on November 15, the opportunity to have a letter published expressing her views was offered and Ms Maxwell decided not to take this offer up. The Media Council believes that Hawke’s Bay Today made appropriate, if a little belated, efforts to allow the group’s version of events to be put by offering to publish the letter, and a correction and apology was not required.

[18] Regarding the headline: Readers would have been in no doubt that this was a letter to the editor and therefore opinion. It is fair to assume that readers understand that a heading on a letter to the editor is not the same as a factual heading on a news story and that the heading is a reflection of the writer’s thoughts on the matter. However, the headline was written as a statement of fact and the Media Council concurs with the editor that it might have been better phrased as a question, particularly as the newspaper would have been aware this was a long-running, contentious dispute. The newspaper offered an apology and clarification over the headline issue, but Ms Maxwell rejected this offer. The Media Council also acknowledges the wording of the proposed clarification was ambiguous and can understand why Ms Maxwell might not have been happy with it. Ms Maxwell could have accepted the apology and suggested an amendment to the wording to make it clearer, but she did not.

The complaint is not upheld.

Dissent

Council Member Marie Shroff dissented, and would have upheld the complaint on the grounds thatHawkes Bay Today did not at the time print the complainant’s counterbalancing letter; and because the headline did not indicate that it was opinion rather than fact. The editor later acknowledged the headline could be misleading by offering to amend it by adding question mark.

As a result the overall coverage of the issue was unbalanced and unfair to the complainant.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today, Craig Cooper, is a member of the Media Council. He played no part in the determination of this complaint and was not present while it was discussed.