Case Number: 3419

Council Meeting: 7 AUGUST 2023

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact

Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists


  1. On 1 May 2023, Stuff published an article 'It's like a vendetta': Neighbours at war over troublesome trees. Gilbert Dymock complained the article was one-sided and allowed Ms Hollis to make slanderous accusations against her neighbours. Mr Dymock said the article breached Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (4) Comment and Fact, and (9) Subterfuge. In determining the complaint, the Council also considered Principle (12) Corrections.
  2. The complaint is upheld on Principles (1) and (12) as the article contained a material inaccuracy about the claim of poisoning and the correction was too late and was not given sufficient prominence.
  3. The complaint is not upheld on Principles (4) and (9).

The Article

  1. The article tells a story of neighbours in dispute over trees on their common boundary, saying the neighbours were tired of feuding over the trees. Ms Hollis, who shares the driveway along which the trees grew, said the trees had helped heal her from a serious illness and were a nesting spot for native birds. Her neighbours, residents in freehold cabins at the Mangawhai Holiday Park, said the trees blocked the sun meaning their houses were cold and they needed their lights on all the time. The article said there was an application to the Disputes Tribunal to have the trees chopped, and Ms Hollis said her neighbours tried to sue her for $10,000 for emotional distress.
  2. The article described some “back and forth between the Hollis’ and a neighbour on a community page” that attracted hundreds of comments. Before the case was heard, Cyclone Gabriel knocked down some of the trees and damaged others. This led to Ms Hollis suggesting the trees could have been poisoned. Ms Hollis is also quoted as saying that someone had topped the new trees she had planted to replace those destroyed by Cyclone Gabriel.
  3. The article concluded with commentary from a lawyer on tree disputes and was accompanied by a video with Ms Hollis presenting her side of the story and aerial views of the trees.

The Complaint

  1. Mr Dymock complained the Stuff story was “one-sided and allowed Ms Hollis to make slanderous accusations” against her neighbours living in the adjacent holiday park. He said the reporter had unfairly placed more emphasis on Ms Hollis’ view of the events, which was evidenced in part by the linked video featuring Ms Hollis and an aerial view of the trees. Although the reporter interviewed two residents from the holiday park, Mr Dymock said the reporter spent “85% of this time on gathering material from Mrs Hollis, 7% from the lawyer, and 8%, being generous, at Mangawhai Park.”
  2. Mr Dymock said the article allowed Ms Hollis to claim “she was verbally abused, had her property damaged and her trees poisoned and was threatened with a $10,000 lawsuit.” Mr Dymock said none of these occurred.
  3. Mr Dymock said those residents interviewed were not the appropriate people to talk to as they were not involved in the “legal aspects of the dispute”. In correspondence with Stuff, Mr Dymock said the people from the holiday park were “pestered” into speaking with the reporter.
  4. Mr Dymock said the information presented about the lawsuit was inaccurate. He said the article wrongly attributed comments (that the lawsuit was a throwaway threat) to one of the residents that were in fact those of the reporter. He said the resident denied anyone was suing Mrs Hollis.

The Response

  1. Initially, Stuff rejected all aspects of Mr Dymock’s complaint. Stuff said the interviews of the holiday park residents were done fairly and respectfully and with the residents’ consent. Stuff was satisfied the article was balanced, and noted the video did not include the residents because they had declined to be filmed.
  2. In its response to the Media Council, Stuff accepted two aspects of Mr Dymock’s complaint (see paragraphs 15 and 16 below) and noted:      
  • Many of Mr Dymock’s claims were about interviews and situations in which Mr Dymock was not involved, and none of those present had made complaints
  • Mr Dymock did not present any evidence to support his claims
  • There was no ambush of the people interviewed at the holiday park. The reporter had identified both himself and the visual journalist, and those interviewed had given consent to the interviews
  • There was no cost in producing the video as Stuff used its own drone
  • Mr Dymock was not present at any of the interviews so has no basis for his estimates of the time spent gathering information

  1. Stuff said there was no allegation in the article that Ms Hollis had been verbally abused, rather the article reports Ms Hollis admitting to being verbally abusive, saying “Ok, I have been a bit rude to them on occasion.” However, Stuff acknowledged the opening paragraph could have been clearer and changed the wording to separate the verbal abuse from accusations of poisoning and property damage:
Original introduction:
Neighbours involved in a bitter, years-long dispute over trees on their boundary say they’re tired of feuding, amid accusations of verbal abuse, poisoning and property damage.
Amended introduction:
… say they’re tired of feuding, amid verbal abuse and accusations of poisoning and property damage.
  1. There was no rebuttal offered to the residents on claims they had poisoned the trees or damaged them because there no such claims were made. While Ms Hollis had talked about poisoning and damage, the article deliberately did not apportion blame to any party.
  2. However, Stuff acknowledged that words Ms Hollis used in the video about the poisoning were inconsistent with those in the article.  In the video, Ms Hollis said “we can’t prove that they have been poisoned, but the arborist actually indicated that some of the could have been poisoned” but the article said “The arborist told me they had been poisoned ….”. Stuff corrected the article so the words were consistent with the video.
  3. Stuff also made an editing change to the video to “avoid an impression that comments made by Ms Hollis in the video were linking Mangawhai Park residents to the possible poisoning of the trees.”
  4. Stuff continued to deny that its reporting of a holiday park resident describing the lawsuit as “throwaway threat” was inaccurate. Stuff said that part of the article accurately reflected an interview at which Mr Dymock was not present. Stuff said:

Not only does the reporting reflect the clear confirmation from the subject when asked directly whether they thought it was a throwaway threat, their previous comment in the conversation – that in their opinion legal action would never have gone ahead – was to the same effect. 

Final comments from Mr Dymock and Stuff

  1. Having read Stuff’s response to the Media Council, Mr Dymock said: 
  • Despite not having been present at the interviews, those who were there had complained to him and he was acting on their behalf
  • Legal action was about to take place in the Arbitration Court on whether the trees should be trimmed or cut down and who should pay (capped at $10,000) – this action was between the residents and the landowner (who was not Ms Hollis)
  • The reporter should have spoken to a different person at the holiday park who was most closely involved with the dispute
  • There was no property damage - the trees had been subsequently cut but skilfully and because they were already overhanging the fence

  1. Because Mr Dymock had introduced new information, further comment was sought from Stuff. Stuff reiterated its original responses and noted it accepted Mr Dymock’s right to complain, the only evidence he had was hearsay, and Ms Hollis’ property had been damaged as the trees had been cut beyond the branches growing through the fence.

The Discussion

  1. The dispute over the trees is clearly challenging for all involved. The Council’s role is not to determine the facts of the matter but to assess whether the article complies with the Council’s principles.

Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

  1. Principle (1) says: 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.
  2. Mr Dymock raised a number of issues relevant to Principle (1) including:
  • Stuff not talking to the right person amongst the owners in the holiday park, therefore not giving the residents a fair right of reply
  • Stuff spending excessive time and cost on creating a video to present only Ms Hollis’ point of view
  • Stuff asserting one of the owners had said the litigation was a “throwaway line”, when these words were used by the reporter and not agreed to by the interviewee
  • Asserting the litigation as a claim for damages for emotional harm, when Mr Dymock said it was a claim for the cost of removing the trees
  • There was no damage to Ms Hollis’ property and it was slanderous to suggest the holiday park residents had poisoned the trees

  1. The Council finds the Stuff article generally presents a balanced summary of the respective positions of the parties. The article does not conclude one side or the other is right but presents the issues as ongoing and something causing distress to all.
  2. The Council finds the article gives fair voice to the residents of the holiday park. Two residents were interviewed and given the opportunity to be included in the filming, which they declined. The Council accepts that the residents knew they were speaking to a reporter and agreed to be interviewed. Mr Dymock has no basis for his estimation of the time spent with each interviewee and the real test is whether the resulting article was balanced, which the Council finds it generally was.
  3. Mr Dymock suggested the reporter should have spoken to another person he believes would have been a more appropriate spokesperson for the residents. The Council accepts Stuff acted in good faith in speaking with someone whom another resident had identified as appropriate.
  4. The article mentioned two lawsuits: one from the residents seeking an order for trimming or felling the trees, and one Ms Hollis said was seeking $10,000 for emotional distress. It is not clear whether either lawsuit was proceeding, although Mr Dymock says the first was continuing in the “Arbitration Tribunal.” The first may no longer be necessary, given the trees were felled by Cyclone Gabriel. And the second may have simply been a “throwaway threat.”
  5. The Council agrees with Stuff that the article fairly presented the position on the resident believing the lawsuit was a throwaway threat. The Council accepts that the statement reflects a question asked and answered and was supported by other parts of the interview.
  6. The Council finds the article did not allege the residents had verbally abused Ms Hollis. However, the introductory paragraph includes “verbal abuse” in its list of accusations. This is not supported by the body of the article, where the only verbal abuse referred to is Ms Hollis’ admission she had been “a bit rude to [the residents] on occasion.” While this does not meet the threshold required to breach Principle (1), the Council believes Stuff’s amendment reduced any risk of confusion.
  7. The article alleges there have been accusations of property damage and poisoning. This is accurate: Ms Hollis suspects her trees had been poisoned, and both Ms Hollis and the residents agree the new trees have been cut. The original version of the article did not clearly accuse the residents of either action, but it is a reasonable inference that Ms Hollis might think they had done so.
  8. It is unfortunate that the article did not accurately reflect Ms Hollis’ comments in the video about the possible poisoning. It was inaccurate to report in the article that Ms Hollis’ arborist thought they had been poisoned when her statement in the video was that the arborist thought some may have been poisoned. When viewed together with the impression left by the editing cut that Ms Hollis thought the residents were responsible, the Council believes the article breached Principle (1) on this aspect and upholds the complaint.

Principle (12) Corrections

  1. As the Council has upheld this aspect of the complaint, it is now necessary to consider whether Stuff’s amendment satisfies the requirements of Principle (12).
  2. Principle (12) says “A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons”.
  3. The Council has already found that Stuff’s amendment of the article and accompanying video corrected the inaccuracy of reporting about the allegation that the trees had been (or could have been) poisoned. The issues are whether this was done sufficiently promptly and with fair prominence.
  4. In the Council’s view, prompter action by Stuff to amend the article could have defused some aspects of the complaint. Because the online article does not say the article has been amended, the Council estimates the change was made at the time Stuff responded to the Council, which was 23 June. This would mean Stuff did not amend the article until almost eight weeks after publication. This does not meet the requirements of Principle (12).
  5. The Council is also not satisfied the amendments to the article were given due prominence. This is because there is no statement in the online article advising readers of the correction. Given the significant inaccuracy, the Council would expect Stuff to have been upfront and transparent by flagging the correction in a statement under the article.
  6. Stuff has made an apology to Mr Dymock. This was contained in its email response to the Council, which the Council provided to Mr Dymock.
  7. Overall, the Council finds the correction of information about the possible poisoning of the trees does not satisfy the requirements of Principle (12).

Principle (4) Comment and fact

  1. Principle (4) says “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.
  2. The Council has not found any breach of Principle (4). In general, the differing views are clearly expressed as the views of one side or the other rather than as independently verified fact. The article is covering an ongoing dispute between the parties and the Council is satisfied that Stuff’s reporting reflected that.
  3. Principle (9) Subterfuge
  4. Principle (9) says “Information or news obtained by subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonest means is not permitted unless there is an overriding public interest and the news or information cannot be obtained by any other means. In other complaints it might be more appropriate to examine the complaint issue by issue”.
  5. The complaint is not upheld under Principle (9). Mr Dymock did not complain that the reporter hid the fact that he was a reporter but rather that the reporter should have gone about the process of interviewing the residents differently. The reporter says he identified himself as a reporter and the residents agreed to be interviewed but not to be filmed. The reporter did not film them.
  6. Decision: The complaint is upheld on Principles (1) and (12) as the article contained a material inaccuracy about the claim of poisoning and the correction was too late and not given sufficient prominence. The complaint is not upheld on Principles (4) and (9).

Council members considering the complaint were Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom.


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