The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by former United Future MP Gordon Copeland against The Dominion Post over the content of an article reporting he had forgotten to vote on the so-called anti-smacking Bill, and omitting to mention he had subsequently cast his vote.

Mr Copeland appeared before the Council to make a submission in support of his complaint.

On May 17, 2007, The Dominion Post referred to Mr Copeland having forgotten to vote against the legislation he opposed. A subsequent (May 21) piece said he had failed to vote against the bill. Mr Copeland advised the newspaper that Parliament had in fact granted him leave to vote against the Bill, and he had done so. The newspaper ran a correction which, at the time, largely satisfied Mr Copeland.

On December 17, 2007, The Dominion Post published a list of “Polly” awards, a humorous bric-a-brac summing up the newspaper’s opinion of the 2007 performance of various politicians and others in the public eye. Included in the list, under the heading “Wally of the Year”, was a four-paragraph report on Mr Copeland. Among other things, this report included that Mr Copeland had forgotten to be in the House for the final vote. No mention was made of his having subsequently voted.

The complaint
The complaint lies with the December 17 publication. Mr Copeland says his only issue with the original article was the use of the “pejorative word forgot”, when his absence had been because the debate had ended more quickly than expected. He had complained about the May 21 article’s claim he failed to vote, but had accepted a published apology.

His complaint is therefore for omitting in the December report that he had voted against the Bill, and for the repetition of the word “forgot” which, he says, was pejorative and inaccurate. His complaint says: “The Dominion Post have by their actions, deliberately misled and misinformed their readers. In publishing only half the story (by omitting the fact that I voted against the Bill that same night) they have knowingly misled their readers and besmirched my reputation.”

Of the term “forgot”, he says he missed the vote because the debate collapsed unexpectedly. “The Dominion Post knew the correct position but chose to tell a different and therefore misleading story. That is unprofessional.” In a letter to the newspaper he says the complained-of paragraph was published “in the foreknowledge that it was factually incorrect”, and therefore a serious breach of professional standards.

The Newspaper’s Response
Before referring the complaint to his political staff for explanation, Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst wrote to Mr Copeland saying, “The fact is you were not in the House when the vote on the Anti-Smacking Bill was taken. It may have been more appropriate to say you neglected to be in the House rather than forgot but, however you dress it up, you were not present to vote on legislation that is fundamental to your party.”

After meeting with his staff he and political editor Tracy Watkins, in near-identical responses, refer the complainant to an Oxford Dictionary definition of “forget” which includes, “to fail to remember, inadvertently neglect to do, or cease to think of”. “All of these definitions would seem to apply to the act of failing to turn up to a vote that held quite some significance to you since it had only been a matter of some hours since you resigned from your party over it.”

Mr Pankhurst further suggests that a long-standing politician’s failure to put in place checks in regards to the debate, was tantamount to forgetfulness. “That you failed to put in place such checks (or even used the fall-back option of having your radio or television set to the parliamentary channel … somewhat bolsters my view that you forgot about – or, if you prefer, inadvertently neglected, or ceased to think of – the upcoming vote. Hence our use of the term ‘forgot’.”

Further correspondence
In subsequent correspondence, Mr Copeland concedes there may be subjective understandings of dictionary definitions of “forgot”. However, the forgetfulness issue was not the main driver for his complaint. “Rather it is the fact that, for the second time, your paper opted to tell just half of the story by omitting to mention that, immediately after the dinner break, I registered my vote against the Bill with the leave of Parliament.”

Mr Pankhurst says: “The fact remains that you missed the vote on the Anti-Smacking Bill at the time it was presented to the House.”

Mr Copeland is quite correct when he alludes to subjectivity in the reading of dictionary definitions. Webster’s, for instance, includes as a definition, “omitting unintentionally”, which is precisely what happened in his missing of the vote. Mr Pankhurst in one letter concedes there may have been a more appropriate word to use than “forgot”, but the breadth of understanding of the word mitigates against an uphold over word choice.

Mr Copeland himself points out that his real complaint lies with the December 17 omission of any mention that he had the same day registered his vote against the Bill. But The Dominion Post’s mock provision of an “award” for “Wally of the Year”, for missing the final vote in the House, did not need to tell the ending of the voting story. Mr Copeland did leave United Future over his leader’s support for the anti-smacking legislation and did miss the final vote. That he subsequently rectified his omission is important detail in any account of the day’s events. But, especially in a clearly satirical piece, The Dominion Post has the right to poke fun at a public figure who, for whatever reason, failed to be on hand for the official final vote on a bill he so strongly opposed.

For the reasons given above, the complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.


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