FRIENDS OF WILLIAMSON PARK AGAINST COASTAL NEWS

Case Number: 2854

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Coastal News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Editorial Discretion
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Overview

[1] On January 17, 2019 Coastal News published an article Appeal over park decision. On May 30, 2019 it published a further articlePark saga costs over $100,000. The Friends of Williamson Park Society Incorporated (the Society) (through one of its members Gary Gotlieb) complains that the articles and associated reporting breach Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Articles

[2] The subject matter of the first article Appeal over park decision involved Williamson Park, a park near the beach in Whangamatā that is administered by the Thames Coromandel District Council. The article notes that an appeal to the Environment Court had been filed by a Whangamatā promoter, Manolo Echave, against a decision of an independent commissioner (under the Resource Management Act 1991) that limited ticketed events at the park to one per year. The article was drawn from Mr Echave’s court documentation and recounted his grounds of appeal. In particular, the article focused on Mr Echave’s claim that uncontrolled events (i.e. non-ticketed events) had the potential to be unsafe, attract a large number of intoxicated people, and be beyond the capacity of the community organisers to manage. In contrast, Mr Echave claimed that professionally organised events (i.e. ticketed events) “reversed the “chaotic, dangerous and stressful outcomes”” of previous unticketed events. His appeal argued that only allowing one ticketed event per year allows for no “controlled” event on New Year’s Eve and that this would result in the community funding the event as infrastructure would have to be provided by “ratepayers”. The article concluded with a note that the Thames Coromandel District Council would not comment as the appeal was before the court.

[3] The second article Park saga costs over $100,000 followed on May 30, 2019, after Mr Echave’s appeal had been withdrawn following mediation. It noted that the “ratepayer funded” court costs of $110,000 had been criticised as unnecessary. It referred to comments made by Mr Gotlieb (legal counsel for the Society) stating his view that the initial council policy that had led to the commissioner’s decision ought never to have been created. The article also contained comments from a representative of the council as to why the policy had been developed and noted the commissioner’s eventual decision. The article recorded statements made by Mr Echave (described as a resident and a professional events promoter) regarding his motivation for the appeal which he said “has always been only to prevent a return of the riots and drink-fuelled emergencies of previous New Years’ in Whangamatā”. In particular, he stressed that his views were as a local and that he did not have an agenda to institute events in Williamson Park. His reported statements also drew on a memo from the Thames Coromandel District Council which enumerated some of the difficulties experienced at previous unticketed events. He contrasted this with a report from St John on the experience of a ticketed event (a Shapeshifter concert) where there had been significantly fewer issues relating to alcohol and violence. The article concluded by, among other things, noting that the Friends of Williamson Park Society wanted the community to know that it was because of Mr Echave’s appeal that the 2018/2019 Summer Festival event was cancelled.

The Complaint

[4] The Society complains about the two articles. In particular, it complains about the fact that it was not afforded an opportunity to respond to the material contained in theJanuary 17 article.

[5] With regard to the article of January 17 the Society suggests that it provided a vehicle for Mr Echave to claim that the reason he was appealing was because of the benefit of having ticketed events and his concerns for the safety of the public. The Society wished to be able to respond to that claim and to “set the record straight” regarding the behaviour of attendees at non-ticketed events. However, they claim that they were inappropriately refused the opportunity to do so until the appeal process was completed; even then, what was published was, in their view, inadequate.

[6] The Society notes that they explained to the editor of the Coastal News on several occasions that this was unfair and was not giving a balanced account of the situation or material facts pertaining to it. They suggest that it was made clear to Mr Echave that he had no jurisdictional grounds for his appeal and they were of the view that Mr Echave’s motivations were different to those stated in the article of January 17. They believed that they had information from various sources that supported these concerns and raised others.

[7] The Society notes that all of this information was provided to the editor of theCoastal News. The Society also states that when the editor met with Mr Gotlieb (as counsel for the Society) she promised that she would raise all of these matters in a further article in response to the article of January 17. They maintain that further promises were made in later correspondence. Moreover, the Society sought, and received, further reassurance that the editor would put the Society’s concerns to Mr Echave by way of interview and include his responses in the further article.

[8] The Society states that this interview did not happen, that the editor made a number of excuses for not doing as she had promised and that the eventual response on May 30, 2019 (Park saga costs over $100,000) simply repeats what Mr Echave claimed in the original article. They suggest that the May 30 article provided the Society with only a limited ability to comment. In addition, it did not allow them to respond to what they viewed as the incorrect facts as presented in the article of January 17. Nor were they able to raise the other concerns they had about Mr Echave’s motivations. They also claim that the Shapeshifter concert had significantly more problems with alcohol and drugs than suggested by Mr Echave in the May 30 article.

[9] In summary, the Society complains that, despite repeated requests, meetings and providing of information, they were not allowed to respond to the statements made by Mr Echave in his appeal documents as reported on January 17. They suggest this position was taken by the editor on the basis that the Society’s response would be inappropriate while the appeal was before the courts. The Society considers that this was incorrect as the Society was always a party to the appeal. The Society states that the editor promised to write an article setting out the matters as understood by the Society and also promised to confront Mr Echave about some of the Society’s contentions. The Society complains that neither of these things happened.


[10] In later correspondence with the Media Council the Society also provided an open letter published as an advertisement by two members of the Society in theCoastal News. The purpose of this letter was to air some of the Society’s concerns in the public domain. The Society claims this was necessary as theCoastal News had published letters to the editor in favour of the Thames Coromandel District Council’s application for resource consent, but refused to publish the Society’s letters in response. The Society points to this as further evidence of a lack of balance in the treatment of this issue by the Coastal News.

[11] Mr Gotlieb, on behalf of the Society, appeared by video link before the Council and highlighted the main issues in the complaint. Overall, the Society considers that Media Council Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) has been breached.

[12] The Media Council notes that the Society provided a detailed and comprehensive range of supporting documents, all of which have been carefully considered. They are referred to, where necessary, in the discussion below.

The Response

[13] In response the Regional Editor – Bay of Plenty for NZME notes his belief that the overall coverage of issues surrounding the use of Williamson Park has been balanced and that the interests of the Society, and the views of its supporters, have had plenty of coverage.

[14] He notes that the issue of Williamson Park and its use for events has been a long-running one. He refers to the exception to Media Council principle 1 (see below) and suggests that all of the coverage of the issue since July 2017 (copies of which have been provided to the Media Council) should be taken into account. In his view, the totality of coverage has been fair and balanced, with articles and letters to the editors providing sufficient opportunity for both sides of the debate to be given an opportunity to comment.

[15] With regard to the two articles complained of, the regional editor notes that the January 17 (Appeal over park decision ) article was accurate as it was based upon court documents. An editorial decision was made not to include comment from the Society (or its counsel Mr Gotlieb) unless they could provide court documents as well. While the matter was before the court the editor of theCoastal News did not wish to introduce further material into the public domain that was not already before the court. While the Thames Coromandel District Council was approached for comment (because it was a party to the appeal) at the time of printing the editor of the Coastal News did not understand the Society to be a party. The regional editor notes that one week after publication Mr Gotlieb (as counsel for the Society) contacted the editor with court documents indicating that the Society was a party to the appeal, but the editor of the Coastal News was on leave at that time. Later she determined that the fact the Society was a party to the appeal was insufficient to justify coverage in a further article.

[16] The regional editor strongly objects to the complainant’s contention that the article of May 30 (Park saga costs over $100,000) is not balanced. He notes that Mr Gotlieb was given a fair say in the article and that his statements were given prominence.The regional editor also notes that this article goes some way toward following up the article of January 17,2019.

[17] The regional editor also notes that the open letter published by some members of the Society was an advertisement and that the editorial and advertising arms of the paper are run separately. While a customer may control the content of an advertisement, journalists and editors retain editorial independence as to the content of news items.

[18] When addressing the allegation that the Costal News refused to publish any letters in support of the Society’s position, the regional editor stresses that all letters are considered for publication, but that there is no obligation to publish letters. Moreover, the regional editor notes that a number of letters that support the Society’s stance have been published.


[19] The regional editor’s response concludes by addressing Mr Gotlieb’s insistence that theCostal News report further on issues surrounding Williamson Park. The regional editor notes that theCoastal News editor has spent time talking to Mr Gotlieb and receiving emails and text messages from him. However, the regional editor stresses that the matters to be covered in any particular edition of theCoastal News are at the editor’s discretion. The issues surrounding the use of Williamson Park have received plenty of coverage over the past two years, and the editor ought not to be criticised for deciding to focus on other issues and stories. While Mr Gotlieb may suggest content, the editor has the right to decide the stories that will be covered, and this discretion is something that will be vigorously defended. Finally, the regional editor notes that it is not possible to publish material which is defamatory and that there was a concern that some of what was suggested be published might be categorised as such.

The Decision

Principle 1 - Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

[20] Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance states that:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

[21] The Media Council notes that the article of January 17, 2019 appears accurate. It was a report on the appeal lodged by Mr Echave. The material in it was drawn from the documents he had filed in the Environment Court.

[22] However, there may be an inaccuracy in the article of May 30, 2019 with regard to the incidents of medical harm occurring at the Shapeshifter concert referred to by Mr Echave. The Society, relying on evidence presented at the hearing before the independent commissioner, suggests there were more incidents than the number indicated by Mr Echave as quoted in the article. The Media Council does not have access to the evidence before the independent commissioner and as a result simply notes the possibility of an inaccuracy. It also notes that this was a report of a statement made by Mr Echave. However, we do consider that this potential inaccuracy illustrates the crux of the Society’s complaint. They believe that Mr Echave’s motivations for bringing the appeal are very different from those he professes and which have been, in their view, uncritically reported. They believe that his true motivations involve important matters of public interest and that these ought to be reported. They consider that the failure of theCoastal News to report on these matters from the Society’s perspective is unfair and unbalanced.

[23] Looking at the article of January 17 in isolation it is simply a report of the appeal lodged by Mr Echave. It makes it clear in the first and second paragraphs that Mr Echave is a promoter. The Thames Coromandel District Council, as a party to the appeal, was given an opportunity to comment but declined to on the basis that the matter was before the courts. The Media Council does not consider that on January 17 the Society needed to be asked for comment. Although the Society suggests that it was always a party to the appeal, the editor does not appear to have been aware of this until after she was sent a copy of the Society’s notice of a wish to become a party to the proceedings with the Environment Court as required by s 274 of the Resource Management Act 1991. This did not occur until January 24, 2019. Although the editor of the Coastal News was on leave at this time she did consider the matter on her return, concluding that the fact the Society was now a party did not justify a further report. The Media Council considers that this decision was open to her. The matter was before the courts and, although she adopted an unusually conservative approach, she cannot be criticised for being cautious about reporting only on that which was before the court. Moreover, beyond observations regarding the strength of Mr Echave’s argument on appeal, it does not appear the Society’s other concerns were before the court. The Media Council considers it was open to the editor to hold off publishing any further articles until after the appeal had been dealt with.


[24] Moreover, the broader context of the Coastal News coverage of the issue of the resource consent, suggests the January 17 article was a continuation of earlier reporting. We agree with the regional editor that the article of January 17 noting Mr Echave’s appeal must be read in this context and that the issue was given balanced treatment across this reporting.

[25] The article of May 30, 2019 must also be read in this context. The Society’s central complaint is that this does not specify all of their concerns about Mr Echave’s motivations and cover the other material they consider important. The Media Council has some sympathy for the Society given the correspondence between it and the editor of theCoastal News does appear to raise an expectation that the Society’s concerns would be aired. Indeed, in one email before the Media Council, from the editor to Mr Gotlieb, there appears to be a draft article that contains some of the text which was used in the May 30 article. However, this draft article contains significantly more material outlining the Society’s concerns. In another email the editor notes that she is “very much looking forward to being able to report the additional and alternative views to what was lodged in court”. The Media Council considers that it would have been best practice for the editor to have been more circumspect about what would appear in the final version of the article and to manage the expectations of the Society more carefully.

Decision

[26] The Media Council considers that it is unclear precisely why the editor thought that the Society’s concerns were sub judice or defamatory. However, we do agree that it was within the editor’s discretion to choose not to publish that material, just as it was (and is) within the Society’s discretion to share their information with other media. In any event, we consider that the material would have added only in a very minor way to the information that was already available. It follows that we do not consider that the failure to mention this material was unbalanced or deliberately misleading. Overall, and in light of the totality of the reporting on this issue over time we do not consider Principle 1 has been breached.

[27] With regard to the points raised about the open letter advertisement and other letters to the editor, we do not think these support the Society’s complaint. Whether or not to publish a letter to the editor is also a matter of editorial discretion. This point is highlighted by the fact that two opinion pieces in support of the Society’s views were published by a different Whangamatā newspaper.

[28] The complaint under Media Council Principle 1 is not upheld.

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

Jonathan MacKenzie took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

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