Case Number: 3428

Council Meeting: 25 September 2023

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Scene in Matamata

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Conflicts of Interest

Ruling Categories: Bias
Editorial Discretion / Freedom
Unfair Coverage

Gord Stewart complained about three articles published under the name of Waikato MP Tim van de Molen in "Scene", a Matamata publication on June 13, July 4 and July 11, 2023. He believed their publication was in breach of Media Council Principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; comment and fact; columns and opinion; and conflicts of interest.

All three columns were all headlined by the MP’s name and one of them also had a sub-heading Repealing Three Waters. They are not stated to be 'opinion' or 'comment' and were typically run over an advertisement showing a photo of the MP and his contact details. 

Mr Stewart said the MP’s columns appeared most weeks and had done so for years. The majority were used to criticise the Government and promote National Party policies. He believed much of the content was written by the National Party's communications team and produced in local papers around the country under the guise of the local National MP's personal opinion.

Mr Stewart also complained that the Scene provided no balancing or alternative views. 

An earlier complaint that Mr Stewart filed against the paper was referred to the Advertising Standards Authority last year when the editor mistakenly said the MP’s column was paid advertising. The editor later corrected that and explained there was a special arrangement with the MP that provided for the publication of the column.

It is also common practice for many newspapers to run columns submitted by their local MPs because they consider them to be of interest to readers. These columns may, as Mr Stewart suggests, be ghost-written by party communications staff, but that is also of no account, as the Media Council does not monitor sources.

Although articles headlined with the name of the local MP could hardly be mistaken for anything other than opinion the Media Council considers it might be better to tag them as opinion.  That would make it absolutely clear that this is not ordinary news content.

The relevant Media Council Principle is (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters which states:

Opinion, whether newspaper column or internet blog, must be clearly identified as such unless a column, blog or other expression of opinion is widely understood to consist largely of the writer’s own opinions. Though requirements for a foundation of fact pertain, with comment and opinion balance is not essential.”

As can be seen, columns are included in expressions of opinion.  Mr Stewart referred to the MP’s column relating to the Three Waters issue to support his belief that the newspaper’s coverage of this issue was not balanced. He said Scene had provided the opportunity for the former mayor, its local MP and Grey Power to spread their similar views and dominate information provided to the community during the height of these discussions.

The fact that the MP’s views were echoed by other prominent local figures does not prove there was a lack of balance in coverage of the Three Waters issue.  As stated in Principle (5) balance is not essential in columns.

We also have no evidence that there was much, if any, local support for the proposed Three Waters reforms. The paper’s editor said she had not received any letters in favour of it while Mr Stewart said the paper had printed one but had declined to print others. This would indicate there was at least some balance.

Mr Stewart has his views on the publication, and has issues with some of its content, particularly the MPs columns. He is entitled to his views but has not presented clear and specific evidence that the Scene has breached any Media Council’s Principles. 

In conclusion, we do not think that any reader would have the wrong impression about the columns in question; they were clearly expressions of opinion by a writer who wished to get people to sympathise with his political views, and vote for him.

Decision: There were insufficient grounds to proceed.


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