GRANT LOWE AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2770

Council Meeting: APRIL 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] A series of articles has been published in the Otago Daily Times between June 2018 and March 2019 regarding a company named Summerland Express Freight Ltd (Summerland).

[2] The general manager of Summerland, Grant Lowe has lodged a complaint with the NZ Media Council and has referred to the series of articles but has focused the complaint on the most recent article dated March 9, 2019 which is titled ‘Claims of illegal hours by former Summerland driver.’

[3] For the sake of completeness all of the articles will be considered as a series as they provide context and the complainant has referenced each of the articles. Equally the editor of theOtago Daily Times, Barry Stewart has referenced the series of complaints in his response to Mr Lowe.[1]

[4] The theme running across the four articles published by the Otago Daily Times (14 June 2018, 26 June 2018, 2 February 2019 and 9 March 2019) is the operation of Summerland as a trucking company and the number of ‘crashes’ that have occurred.The article dated 9 March 2019 discusses the experience of a Summerland truck driver with a particular focus on the number of hours he would drive for the company and the effect that had on him and how this induced a sense of putting himself and other road users at risk.There is a suggestion by the driver that the hours he was expected to drive pushed hard up against the maximum legal limits including exceeding the legal limits on any given work day. The aforementioned is underpinned by a reference to the truck driver’s timesheets which he claims underestimate how much he was working. The general manager of Summerland has confirmed that this did occur, blaming a manager’s mistake.There is commentary by the general manager suggesting that the driver possibly worked longer hours as his driving was not up to scratch.

[5] Mr Lowe’s primary concern surrounds the false impression created in the public realm by the series of articles in theOtago Daily Times about Summerland’s drivers that they are “pressured into working illegal hours, that they are reckless with public safety and that the company is hiding from scrutiny”.



[1] In accordance with NZ Media CouncilComplaint Procedure 2(b) the series of artices has been considered on the following basis: “A complaint arising from a series of articles, within one calendar month of the earlier of the date from which the substance of the complaint would have been reasonably apparent to the complainant, or the publication of the last article in the series.”

The Complaint

[6] Each of the articles run by the Otago Daily Times has been remarked on in the complaint laid by Mr Lowe.

[7] In essence, Mr Lowe has complained that the “filtering of facts” by the Otago Daily Times has breached the NZ Media Council principle relating to “accuracy, fairness and balance.”

[8] Mr Lowe has suggested that the editor of the Otago Daily Times has “ignored significant facts and substance”.The journalist has filled the first three quarters of the March 9 article with “the driver’s outrageous claims about our company.”The essence of the complaint centres on the “reliance on a completely unreliable source, leading to a campaign so damaging that it was the equivalent of an execution for a probation offence.”Mr Lowe states that Summerland “do not quarrel with the facts of Summerland’s road incidents and mistakes.”

[9] There is a suggestion by Mr Lowe that the journalist knew “that the law holds both driver and company responsible for driving hours; that the company cannot always prevent a breach if the driver does not call it in; and that we self-reported the breaches (and real mistakes) to the NZTA and CVST. None of that was included.”Further, Mr Lowe questions why the journalist “ignored the legal responsibility of all drivers to keep to lawful hours”.He is unsure why questions were not asked of the driver named in the 9 March article around “why the driver chose to work those hours” or the driver’s “part in causing the breaches”.The journalist treated “those individual time sheet entries as evidence of repressive company policy – facts are not the same as truth.”

[10] Of particular concern to Summerland is the repetition of a ‘damaging misquote’, “I work close to 70 hours a week… I think I’ve got good balance.”Summerland takes exception with the omission of the words “…from time to time” as he says “the published dots indicate that the journalist knew exactly what he was doing. Bias by selection.”

[11] Mr Lowe acknowledges that “in spite of those recent incidents and room for improvement, Summerland’s safety record compares well with other trucking companies.”He has described theOtago Daily Times “filtering of facts” as having “given the public the false impression that we pressure our drivers into illegal hours, that we are reckless with public safety, and that we are hiding from scrutiny.All three are nonsense.”According to Mr Lowe this is a breach of NZ Media Council Principle 1, “That is a far cry from accuracy, fairness and balance.”

[12] In summarising, Mr Lowe has said, “…the Otago Daily Times has damaged us far beyond what our actual mistakes deserve.”

The Response

[13]Barry Stewart, editor of the Otago Daily Times, provided a response to the complaint by Mr Lowe.

[14] Mr Stewart has highlighted that “Issues of road safety are very much in the public domain and I make no apology for publishing the story by this newspaper.In this regard I note your acknowledgement that your company is not blameless, and the media has a legitimate interest in these matters.”

[15] It was noted that “The focus of the story is of a driver apparently driving outside of his permitted hours.You make the point that individual drivers have a personal responsibility to ensure that they drive within their allowable hours.However, it is recognised that individuals may choose to breach the limitation on hours.”In a further response by Mr Stewart he states “[the driver] alleged the company created a culture where he felt he had to complete the routes, even if it took more than legal hours.”Further, “several time-sheets provided by [the driver] show there were many times he worked 14-hour days, meaning the company would undoubtedly have been aware of his issues completing runs in the allotted time.”

[16] There was an offer made to Mr Lowe to provide a ‘letter to the editor’, “I am prepared to publish in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ your reply to the claims of the employee over his working excess driving hours.”

[17] Mr Stewart has remarked that he hoped the offer of providing a letter to the editor would have been taken up by now, “It is disappointing Mr Lowe has not taken up our offer of responding through our letters to the editor columns.That offer still stands providing it meets our guidelines…”

[18] Mr Stewart has said “we stand by our reporting and are confident it is fair and balanced.”The facts used by the journalist in the article were supported by time-sheets provided by the driver and a statement from the NZTA, while they were also acknowledged as correct by Mr Lowe.

[19] In concluding, Mr Stewart disputes there has been a breach of the NZ Media Council principles, “Mr Lowe’s claims theOtago Daily Times has, by lack of accuracy, fairness and balance, and the blatant misuse of headlines, left the public with an utterly false idea of his company.With respect, I believe the facts speak volumes in this case.”

The Decision

[20]The Council notes that each of the stories covered by the Otago Daily Times was generated by a newsworthy event: a truck crash that incurred what was deemed to be a “woefully inadequate” fine, a truck-and-trailer fire, several crashes and reference to the number of driver hours etc. Road safety, and in particular the safety of the trucking industry, is of great concern to the public and therefore can be considered to be of public interest in reporting on this topic.

[21] Mr Lowe has referred to a breach of Principle 1 in his complaint which deals with accuracy, fairness and balance.Of particular relevance in relation to this complaint is the provision that “publications… should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.”Focusing on the series of articles from June 2018 to 9 March 2019, the content of the stories is an account of a series of events concerning the trucking company Summerland with the article in March focusing on the experience of a truck driver for Summerland and the number of hours involved in driving for this company. Responses are provided by the general manager of Summerland, Mr Lowe, and the Council notes that the second article dated 26 June 2018 includes a fair amount of comment by Mr Lowe with admission that some of the practices of Summerland contributed to the crashes.The article dated 9 March includes the voice of Summerland albeit quite late in the story.Notwithstanding this, the claims that the company had allowed the driver to work more hours than were legally allowed over a two-week period were confirmed by the company’s general manager and this was further supported by the driver’s timesheets. Reference to the series of articles provides the wider context that demonstrates that Summerland has a history of incidents and that the claims by the driver in the 9 March article were not an isolated incident for this company.

Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance: Not upheld

[22] NZ Media Council Principle 6 regarding ‘Headlines and Captions’ require that‘Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.’Referring to the article headline, ‘Claims of illegal hours by former Summerland driver’ accurately reflects the substance of the story.The content of the story is an account of a former Summerland driver and his claims of illegal driving hours which are confirmed by the company’s General Manager.

Principle 6 – Headlines and Captions: Not upheld

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jenny Farrell, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.