The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint from the chief executive officer of Port of Wellington Ltd regarding a letter criticising his performance which was published in the Evening Post. The Council felt that the letter, while strongly worded, formed part of the normal process of open debate on a matter of public interest and the chief executive, Mr Graham Mulligan, had been given an adequate right of reply. It is relevant that the subject letter was not unsolicited, but was a response to a news item published in the newspaper 11 days earlier about Port of Wellington Ltd and Mr Mulligan its C.E.O.

The letter complained of appeared in the newspaper’s letters column on Saturday 9 August 1997, under the heading “Port CEO unpatriotic.” The letter writer, Mr Mike Williams of Lower Hutt, criticised Mr Mulligan’s performance as chief executive for having failed to attract shipping or revenue to the port and adopting an unpatriotic attitude by favouring overseas shipping companies over New Zealand shipping. The word “unpatriotic” was used in the letter.

On the day the letter appeared, Mr Mulligan contacted the editor of the Post to complain about its content and the following Monday lawyers acting on his behalf wrote to the newspaper requesting it to publish a front page correction and apology.

Lawyers for the Post responded the next day, declining the request, but offering Mr Mulligan a right of reply on the letters page. There followed a vigorous exchange between the respective lawyers. Eventually agreement was reached on the wording of a letter from Mr Mulligan which appeared in a prominent position on the letters page the following Saturday. Mr Mulligan subsequently complained to the Press Council on the grounds that this was not an adequate remedy.

The lawyers acting for Mr Mulligan argued that the Post had been deficient in several respects; it omitted to identify the fact that Mr Williams was the secretary of the Seafarers’ Union and so had a bias; failed to note potentially defamatory material in the letter; did not check the accuracy of the content with Mr Mulligan; published the letter under a headline implying endorsement of the content; and failed to give Mr Mulligan a simultaneous right of reply. In fact, under Mr Mulligan’s management port usage and profitability had increased markedly and there was no bias against New Zealand shipping.

The assistant editor of the Evening Post responded that the staff member who dealt with the letter had no reason to know Mr Williams was the union secretary and, in any event, that position did not bar him from holding an opinion; the letter contained generalised opinions rather than specific facts so the paper saw no reason to check the claims with Mr Mulligan; the headline did not imply endorsement of the letter; and Mr Mulligan had been offered an immediate right of reply.

The Council found it unfortunate that Mr Williams’ union affiliations had not been recorded as this would have given readers a better perspective on his point of view. Because of his public profile and the tone of his letter the Council considered the Post should have been more alert to the position held by the writer of the letter.

The Council also noted that if Mr Mulligan had been given a simultaneous right of reply there might have been less justification for dissatisfaction as the letter writer would have been immediately identified. It was, however, the prerogative of individual editors to decide when it was appropriate to take such a step.

Nevertheless, the Council did not uphold the complaint. The fundamental issue was whether Mr Mulligan had been fairly treated and the Council found that he had. The claims by Mr Williams on a public issue were forthrightly expressed, but no more so than is frequently the case in letters to the editor. Mr Mulligan had been given a prompt and full right of reply which was prominently displayed. Readers were therefore in a position to make up their own minds on the subject. In publishing both letters the Post was merely doing its job of facilitating public debate on a matter of legitimate public interest. Unless otherwise stated a newspaper expresses no opinion - express or implied - in publishing letters addressed to the editor, a position which is well understood by the public.


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