G.M.PETERS AGAINST THE HUTT NEWS

Case Number: 616

Council Meeting: JULY 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hutt News

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint that an article in the Hutt News based on a reporter's experiences in the Hutt Post Office in the seventies had made assertions that were inaccurate, unfair and insulting. At the same time, the Press Council held that, given the seriousness of the allegations in the article and the reactions they aroused, the editor could have helped clear the air by providing space for the presentation of detailed balancing opinion on behalf of the Post Office.

The article in question was designated "A Viewpoint" and was written by Nicholas Boyack, a reporter on the Hutt News. His recollections of his experiences as a teenager casually employed over a Christmas period in the seventies were most unflattering to Post Office staff and included allegations of carelessness, deliberate destruction of mail, inefficiency, time-wasting and pilfering of parcels. He went on to suggest that the Post Office of the day "turned a blind eye to a culture of theft and incompetence."

This view was challenged by Mr George Peters, a retired Director-General of the Post Office in the late seventies, who said he was complaining on his own behalf and on behalf of his former staff. He said that Mr Boyack's article was cobbled together to make some politically inspired points, that its accusations were mischievous and offensive, and that the contention that the Post Office ignored theft and incompetence was untrue.

The editor of the Hutt News denied any political motivation and stressed that the article was labelled "A Viewpoint" and was by-lined. The fact that people were offended, he said, did not alter the truth of what Mr Boyack experienced. He pointed out that the Hutt News had published a letter from a former Post Office worker presenting a contrary viewpoint.

In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Peters provided an outline of the measures taken within the Post Office to monitor standards in the seventies. In the system of official and parliamentary scrutiny that prevailed, he said, a culture of theft and incompetence could not have passed unnoticed.

The editor told the Press Council that, at an early stage, he had offered Mr Peters the chance of a rebuttal. He reiterated that the Viewpoint article embodied the honest opinions of a journalist about his experiences which were evidence that incompetence and theft existed in the Post Office, whatever general policies there were to deal with them.

This drew a rejoinder from Mr Peters in which he said the editor's offer of a letter of rebuttal was inadequate to the nature of the complaint. He then dealt in detail with the specific criticisms embodied in the article. He questioned whether, after so long, Mr Boyack's memory could be as precise as he claimed and outlined a number of circumstances suggesting that his recollections were inaccurate or improbable.

During Press Council discussion, members emphasised that it was not within their responsibility to rule on the conflict of evidence before them. Several felt that the designation of the article as a Viewpoint and its attribution to a particular journalist gave scope for a strong form of observation and opinion by the writer, and the general feeling was that the complaint should not be upheld.

At the same time, the Press Council took careful note of Mr Peters' indignant reactions and his sense of grievance on behalf of Post Office staff. It noted also why he had refused the suggestion that he express his objections in a letter to the editor. In these circumstances, the Press Council considered that the editor would have done well to seek a balanced scrutiny of the issue by offering space and opportunity for Mr Peters to provide his own detailed Viewpoint on how the Post Office was in the seventies.