GRAHAM BARKER AGAINST ASHBURTON GUARDIANOn August 26, 2005, the Ashburton Guardian carried a front-page report about a couple who were the victims of a home invasion on October 4, 2004. They had initially refused counselling and in seeking it later had discovered the delay meant they would have to fund it privately. The report carried a brief account of the incident and one paragraph recorded that Dayle Julian Barker had been sentenced to six years imprisonment in July 2005 on what was described as “a raft of charges’ in connection with the incident.
Mr Graham Barker, father of Dayle Barker , has complained about the publication of the details of the incident. The complaint is not upheld.
Immediately after publication, Mr Barker contacted the newspaper and spoke to the managing director Bruce Bell. The burden of his complaint was that it was unnecessary to give details of his son’s conviction and sentence. Mr Barker also complained the account of the events of October 4, provided by the mother of one of the victims, was inaccurate. He objected to the use of the term “raft of charges” when there were actually four.
On September 1 Mr Barker spoke to Mr Bell again, repeating his complaints and seeking an apology. On the same day he relaid the complaints to the editor Grant Shimmin. The next day, at the request of Mr Shimmin, Mr Barker provided some extracts of police statements referring to the case.
On September 7 Mr Shimmin wrote to Mr Barker saying the newspaper would not carry an apology as it believed there were no grounds for making one. The report was primarily about the plight of the victims and there had been no obligation to approach the Barker family. The extracts from the police statements presented by Mr Barker were selective. Mr Shimmin suggested Mr Barker had the option of submitting a readers’ letter for consideration or pursuing the matter with the Press Council. Mr Barker lodged a complaint with the Council on October 5.
As Mr Barker senior was not the subject of the report he was asked to obtain the consent of his son for the pursuit of the complaint and this was received by the Council on October 21.
Mr Shimmin’s response was received on October 17. He repeated that the subject of the story was the continuing difficulties of the victims. Any inaccuracies appeared to be minor and there was no suggestion that substance of the particular paragraph referring to Mr Barker – that he had been responsible for the home invasion and had been jailed – was incorrect.
In a lengthy reply Mr Barker responded to Mr Shimmin, continuing to state he believed the newspaper had had an obligation to contact the Barker family. He said the substance of the article was based on hearsay. He no longer sought an apology (and the Council had pointed out that the proceedings could result in further publicity about his son) but wished the journalistic standards of the Guardian to be condemned.
The burden of his complaint is that Ashburton is a small town where many people know each other. “We did nothing wrong. We are the ones left and have to keep smiling while the Guardian is happy to open old wounds.”
In his final response to the Council of December 6 Mr Shimmin said it was his understanding that Mr Barker did not want his son's actions publicised again and the sweeping nature of the apology Mr Barker sought was unacceptable to the newspaper. Mr Shimmin said he had always been willing to correct any inaccuracies, provided the specific details could be provided. Mr Barker's partial provision of statements did not make this possible.
Mr Barker’s complaint is not upheld. The sourcing of the story to the victim’s mother is reasonable given that the substance of the article was the plight of the victims. Mr Shimmin’s suggestion in his letter to the Council of December 6 that the mother would have been given a detailed and immediate account is credible.
Mr Barker failed to identify to the Guardian any substantial errors in its report and the Council has no evidence before it of any such major errors. The one paragraph recapitulation of the verdict and sentence is not challenged and is a necessary part of the report to explain the outcome of the incident to the reader. It is not elaborated upon and there are no references to Mr Barker’s family. Whether four charges is “a raft” is a matter of opinion.
Mr Barker’s suggestion that the apology take the form “we apologise to the Barker family for the unbalanced and one-sided story which differs from the true facts” is one that, given the circumstances, would be unacceptable to any editor and could, in fact, have left him liable to complaints from the subjects of the report.
It is clear the Guardian took Mr Barker’s complaints seriously and devoted considerable attention to them. But the decision not to apologise was justifiable. Newspapers serving small communities do have the obligation to consider the impact of publicity but the argument that the Guardian has acted irresponsibly cannot be sustained.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Murray Williams and John Gardner.
People with a complaint against a newspaper should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10 8789, The Terrace, Wellington. Phone 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is available at www.presscouncil.org.nz