Case Number: 3377

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2023

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Gisborne Herald

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Bias


  1. The Chief Executive of the Gisborne District Council (GDC) complains on behalf of the GDC that the Gisborne Herald (Herald) has shown a lack of accuracy, fairness and balance in its coverage of the GDC; and that this negativity towards the Council has been a continuing issue. GDC complains under Principle (1). The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

  1. GDC describes specific complaints about three stories published on 2 and 12 July, which it sees as examples of this lack of balance.

  2.  The GDC also refers to a further four Herald articles published on 9, 11, 18 and 20 June respectively. We have taken these into account only as background in considering the complaint, as neither the complainant nor the respondent have dealt with them in detail.

  3. On 7 July 2022 the GDC made a general complaint under Article (1) and cited two articles as examples of lack of fairness and balance in the coverage by the Herald of the GDC.  The first story was headed GDC ‘feeling the pinch’ Not alone in struggle to find and retain staff; and the second was headed Titirangi Consent Opposed. Both stories were published on Saturday 2 July 2022. On 15 July the GDC added a third story to their complaint: Unspent Roading Funds a Concern, published on 12 July 2022. A further four stories published in June 2022 were also briefly cited in the original complaint as evidence of lack of balance.

The Complaint

  1. GDC says The Herald is the only newspaper in the Tairawhiti region, and in the GDC’s view its coverage “perpetuates ongoing negativity through an imbalance in reporting” which has an adverse impact on the GDC and its staff in its dealings with the public. It considers The Gisborne Herald is therefore in breach of Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

  2.  The first main example cited concerns staff turnover difficulties at GDC and was published on 2 July 2022. The GDC complains that the article lacks balance because it used the word “terminated” to describe ending of employment by staff, when the cause could have been otherwise, e.g., retirement or ending of fixed terms; that not enough emphasis was given to current nationwide problems with the staff retention and recruitment; and that other important detail of the Council’s response was not published.

  3.  The second example complained of, covered opposition by Rongowhakaata iwi to the Titirangi consent and was sub headed “Call for engagement with all iwi and hapu connected to maunga”. The article was divided over pages 1 and 2 and an additional subheading on page 2 read “GDC to meet with all submitters”. The GDC says the story focused on one negative submission; the reporter spoke to only one person; the report of subsequent fruitful discussions with Rongowhakaata was ‘hidden’ in paragraph 10; and Council comment was on page 2. The GDC says a Rongowhakaata source has told them the account of negative iwi attitudes to the proposal as reported by the Herald was not correct.

  4. The third article complained of was an account of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s visit to Tairawhiti, published on 12 July. It was headed “Unspent roading funds a concern” and sub headed “Deputy PM disappointed about unspent PGF funds going begging”. The implication was that the GDC was responsible for the underspend. The GDC complains the Herald reported funds allocated to GDC were $10m underspent when only $5m of GDC allocated funds had not been spent. The GDC says the full amount was in any case scheduled to be spent within a longer prescribed timeframe, so should not have been described as an underspend. The underspend on roading was in fact a Waka Kotahi responsibility.

  5. A further four articles were briefly cited as evidence in this complaint. They were headed respectively: Negligent dog owner accountability questioned (June 20); Ecological disaster (June 18); Gisborne Mayor given chains because she fit the stereotype (June 11); Baker fighting to clear name after stoush with GDC (June 9). GDC complained about these articles mainly on the grounds that they were inflammatory, because they gave undue prominence to the voices of critics, and that GDC comments and information were placed at the end of these articles

The Response

  1. The Editor of the Gisborne Herald begins with a general response to the GDC’s broader points. He says the Herald finds it difficult to report on GDC matters, because of the highly controlled approach taken by the Council. The GDC does many good things and has many good staff but is highly sensitive to any reporting of negative matters. The Herald is committed to fair and balanced reporting and has worked with the Council to increase understanding of the Herald’s and the GDC’s needs in doing their respective jobs, and to ensure its stories are accurate.

  2. On the staff turnover article: it appears there were exchanges with the Council about aspects of it, including use of the word ‘terminated’ about staff who had left, and the printing of only part of the Council’s full response. The online version now visible was apparently adjusted by the Herald following discussion with the GDC. It would have been helpful, if changes were made after the initial publication of the article, for these to have been recorded on the website.

  3. On the Titirangi consent article: the Editor says the report was written following investigation by the reporter of the consent process and the submissions for and against. The reporter found the proposal had a majority of submitters against. The Rongowhakaata objection was newsworthy. The reporter has subsequently checked again with the Rongowhakaata source, who is happy with the way the Herald handled the story. The account of the subsequent fruitful discussions with the iwi was not ‘hidden’, but rather was on page one of the report. The placement of Council comments on the second page was a news judgement by the Herald, that the Council response lacked the detail and substance of the Rongowhakaata comments.

  4. On the report of the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks on unspent PGF funding, the Editor points out that the Herald accurately reported the Minister’s comments made at the event, regarding his disappointment that money put aside for roading in the region was as yet unspent. The Deputy Prime Minister apparently qualified those comments in a subsequent personal conversation with the Mayor, to suggest that it was Waka Kotahi rather than the Council that was responsible for the underspending on roads. The Editor says the reporter covered this point in his article. The details of this matter were still being clarified with Waka Kotahi by the Herald. In the meantime, on 13 July, the Herald printed a column by the Mayor, in which she clarified the responsibility of Waka Kotahi for spending most of the PGF money for roading improvements; and that PGF funds allocated to the GDC were $10m, of which $5m had been spent, and $5m transferred to the next financial year, in accordance with the timeframe over which the PGF funds could be spent.  The Editor comments that in hindsight, in addition to the Mayor’s column, the Herald could have run a correction of the $10m underspend figure reported by the Herald. The Herald offered to revisit and correct this figure in the light of the eventual Waka Kotahi response.

  5. The Editor has not commented on the further four articles briefly cited by the complainant (see paragraph 8 above).


The Discussion

  1. This complaint is unusual, in that the GDC makes a general complaint of negative reporting against the Gisborne Herald, citing multiple issues of concern and general bias dating back at least three years; and also complains about a number of specific articles which it considers to be examples of biased and unfair reporting by the Herald in breach of Principle (1). We consider that it is fair, and consistent with our purpose and normal procedures,  to reach an opinion on the complaint mainly on the information in front of us about the three articles argued in detail by both the complainant and respondent, rather than attempting a broader ruling as sought by the GDC.

  2. On the staff turnover article: in our view the use of the word termination to cover a variety of causes for staff departures can be understood in the context of the article and is not objectionable, although some Council members felt an alternative term would have been preferable. The prominent subheading Not alone in struggle to find and retain staff conveys clearly and upfront the wider context in which the GDC was having staff retention problems, and there were also mentions in the article of similar nationwide problems; the Herald printed a reasonable and representative number of the GDC’s comments provided in response to the Herald’s questions. The handling of this story was well within normal journalistic practice and balance requirements. In our view the complaint on this story cannot be upheld on Principle (1).

  3. On the Titirangi consent story: the reporter concerned took the initiative to investigate the consent process and noticed the majority of submissions were opposed. He then interviewed a submitter and found what he considered to be a newsworthy angle about lack of consultation with Rongowhakaata. The GDC’s claim that the Herald misrepresented this submitter, as not in fact opposed to the consent, is not borne out by a subsequent check by the Herald. The fact that Rongowhakaata considered ‘fruitful’ discussions had since taken place was included in the section of the article published on the front page. GDC views were included in the story. While this article focused on Rongowhakaata concerns, rather than GDC’s explanations, in the Media Council’s view this was a legitimate ‘scoop’ by the reporter and contained some balancing comments from the GDC. The Council considers that there are insufficient grounds to uphold this complaint on lack of balance under Principle (1).

  4. On the unspent PGF funds story on 12 July: the public remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister and the immediately subsequent private exchange with the Mayor gave rise to some confusion of facts about who was responsible for the underspend – the Gisborne District Council, or Waka Kotahi. The mayor’s column, which corrected the facts about the underspend including the amount, was published on 13 July. The Editor notes a correction at the time to the carried-over funds aspect of the story would have been desirable and is prepared to run a correction as soon as the Herald has clarification from Waka Kotahi.  This was a confusing situation, which is still being clarified, and the Council does not consider there are sufficient grounds for an uphold.
  6.  On the basis of the three complaints considered in detail, the Media Council’s view is that the Gisborne Herald appears to be doing a normal reporting job in its coverage of the Gisborne District Council.  Giving a voice to public concerns and publishing views from all sides is an essential part of the job of a free news media. The Media Council notes that, as a dominant print media news source in the Tairawhiti district, the Gisborne Herald has a particular responsibility to preserve fairness and balance. The Council welcomes the Editor’s commitment to get things right and willingness to keep communication open with the GDC in support of that goal.

    Decision: The Media Council considers there are insufficient grounds regarding the three main articles cited to uphold a complaint from the Gisborne District Council against the Gisborne Herald on breaches of Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.  

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Rosemary Barraclough; Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Hank Schouten, Ben Frances, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.


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