GRAHAM BETHUNE AGAINST THE WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 584

Council Meeting: AUGUST 1995

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

A complaint to the New Zealand Press Council by Mr Graham Bethune, Public Relations Manager of the University of Waikato against the Waikato Times has failed.

The complaint concerned a report, published on 16 March, over prospects for October's local body elections in which a group of Hamilton city councillors was campaigning to unseat the Mayor, Margaret Evans. The report noted that the group had commissioned research from Waikato University's School of Management Studies and quoted Cr Russ Rimmington as saying the survey showed many Hamilton people wanted a change in the leadership of the City.

The complaint to the Press Council said the newspaper published claims by Cr Rimmington which were, according to the complainant, highly inaccurate. Mr Bethune said the newspaper had a responsibility to ascertain the accuracy and pertinency of the research results. Readers did not have the opportunity to assess the merits of the story or to judge the accuracy of Cr Rimmington's claims because they had no details of the research results. Mr Bethune said the results of the research were to remain confidential unless the consent of both parties was granted to release details of the research. Cr Rimmington had broken the agreement and released partial details of the research to the news media.

In an exchange of correspondence with the Waikato Times, Professor Mike Pratt, Dean of the School of Management Studies said the issue was not that the results were made public, but that partial results were. The parties to the research had ethical responsibilities -- and so too did the Times he said.

The editor of the newspaper maintained the news story was "fair and balanced," and insisted it was fallacious to argue that the newspaper should not have published anything, given that it did not have the full report.

On the claim that the Times should have exercised its ethical responsibility to the public by obtaining the full results, or not running the story, the Council has little difficulty in finding that the newspaper was justified in carrying a statement of views by a city councillor who was privy to the results of the research.

The Waikato Times cannot be held responsible for any lapse of confidentiality of those party to classifying the material in that way.

On the point raised by the complainant whether the press can publish any claim without verifying the accuracy or pertinency of the claims, the Council notes that reports of debates in Parliament, for example, would be heavily foreshortened if that were the case.

If a prominent city councillor puts forward his views on an issue of obvious public interest, a newspaper is entitled to report those views, providing it does so accurately. That is part of the process of public debate.

The complaint is dismissed.

Ms Sue Carty, a member of the Press Council, now editor of Wellington's Evening Post newspaper and who was editor of the Waikato Times at the time the article was published, was not present at the Council meeting when the complaint was heard.