GRANT WILSON AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESEARLY on the morning of June 7, 2005, a man was found shot dead on a remote rural property about 8km northwest of Waingaro, Waikato.
On June 13, Mr Grant Wilson, the uncle of the dead man, contacted the editor of The Waikato Times to voice concerns about the newspaper’s coverage of the fatal shooting of his nephew, Dwayne, known as Andre, whom he had helped raise as a child.
A first article had been published on June 8 and was headed Body Sparks Murder Probe; the second Guns, Bikes ‘Put Off’ Resident was published the following day.
The editor readily agreed that the paper should interview Mr Wilson so he could give another perspective to the life of his nephew, who had gang connections, and an interview with a reporter and photographer took place at Matamata on June 15.
Before the interview started, the reporter and Mr Wilson agreed to speak off the record for a short period. Mr Wilson says they spoke about speculation that Andre had not shot himself accidentally and that the circumstances of his death were suspicious. From what was subsequently transpired, it is obvious they discussed who might be responsible for Andre’s death.
After a short time, the interview went on the record. During the on-the-record session, topics raised during the off-the-record portion of the interview arose again.
There was an arrangement that the reporter would contact Mr Wilson the next morning to read him a draft of his article, and this duly occurred. Mr Wilson’s memory of what he was read was that the article was “90 percent favourable to express our love for Andre.”
When the article appeared on June 18, Mr Wilson described himself as “totally blown away … nothing in the article reflected what I had been read that Thursday morning.”
Subsequently, Mr Wilson complained to the Press Council. The complaint is not upheld. But the Council believes the editor of the Waikato Times should clarify the newspaper’s policy about off-the-record conversations and what the term means, not just for staff but also interview subjects who make such requests.
The heading over the June 18 article read Shot Man’s Family Blame Fugitive.
A supra intro said: “The killer of a Waingaro man may be a gang member already on the run from police.”
The opening paragraph of the article said: “The family of a man shot dead at a farm near Waingaro say he was killed by an unnamed fugitive who betrayed an offer of sanctuary.” It went on to quote Grant Wilson as saying his nephew was kind and generous and that his generosity in providing sanctuary had cost him his life.
Mr Wilson wrote a formal complaint to the Waikato Times on June 20 to which the editor replied on June 22. However, the editor’s letter went astray and Mr Wilson did not receive it. When he received no reply, Mr Wilson wrote another to the editor on July 1, saying he would be taking up the matter with the Press Council. The missing letter no doubt added to Mr Wilson’s sense of grievance.
In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Wilson said the article, which he described as “incredibly irresponsible,” had placed his family in danger. “Half of my family won’t even speak to me now and one of my nephews is so scared he is moving to Australia, he lives in the same town as this gang and fears for the lives of his one-year-old son and partner.”
In his letters both to the editor and the Council, Mr Wilson raised four principal issues:
1) Referring to the June 8 article, he said it was irresponsible to quote road workers as to what had happened at his nephew’s house on the grounds that such reporting could not provide a balanced, relevant or informative perspective.
In response the editor said that such reporting was essential to readers. It was a case where police were making little comment and talking to people who know the deceased is common and accepted practice. In this case, those quoted did not know the deceased but they did add to the substance of the article.
2) Referring to the June 9 article, where an anonymous man is quoted as referring to gunshots and noisy motorcycles being heard on Andre’s property, Mr Wilson asked if this man was referring to normal farming activities or mechanical repairs, or was he talking about senseless and careless acts? If so, why had he not made official complaints to authorities before Andre’s death?
The editor said they were reporting concerns expressed by a neighbour about activities on the property and it was right and balanced for the paper to put these concerns in the public domain.
In the context of this story, seeking comment from people not directly associated with a police investigation who might have information, is a standard and well accepted reporting practice. The comments are unremarkable and the newspaper was perfectly entitled to interview somebody it believed might cast light on the situation.
3) The Waikato Times had quoted a police officer as saying that while the inquiry proceeded, it would be “foolish” for police to pre-empt a situation without knowing “the true facts.” Mr Wilson said that was exactly what the newspaper appeared to be doing.
In his reply of June 22 to Mr Wilson, the editor denied any pre-emption but said journalists did run their own investigations. In this case, because of the lack of police information, information from alternative sources became more important. Again, this is standard journalistic practice on a story of major importance, such as a murder inquiry.
4) The family wanted only a story that provided balance about Andre and Mr Wilson says he believed this was what had been agreed with the editor when he first telephoned and agreement was reached about an interview. As such, he believed other remarks were off the record and, as a result of the story, he and his family had been placed in considerable danger.
Clearly, this is the nub of the complaint. Mr Wilson believed he would be able to put his nephew in another, more positive context through the interview, and that the paper had agreed to publish only his remarks about the positive sides of his nephew and how the family had loved him.
The editor, in his letter to Mr Wilson of June 22, agreed that he had offered Mr Wilson in their telephone conversation before the interview an opportunity to share his side of the story. However, even in such stories, the reporter must find a news angle and the most interesting angle to the paper and readers would no doubt have been Mr Wilson’s theories on the murder, the letter said.
In his reply to the Press Council, the editor also agreed that the interview started off-the-record. But even after it went on the record, Mr Wilson kept referring to issues of blame, so much so that the reporter, whom the editor described as exceptionally formal, warned Mr Wilson that this was likely to be the angle of the story, as it duly became.
The editor also pointed to the reporter’s reading back of the story to Mr Wilson before it was published, which is not the paper’s policy but encouraged if sensitive issues are involved. Mr Wilson’s reaction had not been negative and while the article was edited after that, “the thrust was largely the same as Mr Wilson heard.” The introduction was changed but only in the way it was worded, and the subject material was the same. All the information that was in the final version was in the original read to Mr Wilson.
(In a later letter, Mr Wilson asked for a copy of the original version but the editor said it was no longer available.)
In his response to the editor’s rebuttal, Mr Wilson argued that if information is off the record and the reporter acknowledges that, then it should be the subject of the interview who decides when it should be on the record, and asked if information considered off the record initially is still off the record when raised during an on-the-record discussion.
The editor, however, believes the reporter took extraordinary steps to define off-the-record and on-the-record. He argued: “When those boundaries are laid out, and an interview subject has been told, then what they say becomes valid material, particularly if it is of public interest.”
The Press Council has debated “off-the-record” before, noting how it means different things to different people. In 2003, the council advised “. . . the Press Council suggests that editors counsel their staff as to how their newspaper, magazine or Internet site prefers to handle information provided ‘off the record’. There is also profit, in the Council’s view, in ensuring what their journalists understand the term to mean.”
“Does it mean, for example, that what the source says to a journalist is quotable but not in a way that can be tracked back to him or her? Does it mean that what a source says cannot be reported at all? Does it mean that in a face-to-face interview, the reporter must not take notes?”
Mr Wilson says he was of the view that it had been agreed that some of what was eventually reported would not be reported at all. The paper, on the other hand, says it clearly told him what it was going to report, and read it out to him.
There is a factual dispute as to what happened between Mr Wilson and the reporter. While the Press Council cannot resolve the dispute it appears there may have been a misunderstanding between them. The Council, on the information before it, does not believe the reporter acted in an unethical manner.
In these circumstances, Mr Wilson’s complaint cannot be upheld. He had opportunities to object vociferously before publication – when the reporter told him that his comments would be the angle of the story and when the article was read out to him.
In this case, however, presentation – a large headline about a fugitive with no mention of what Mr Wilson wanted prioritised – would have added to his anguish.
The Waikato Times should clarify its policies with staff and interview subjects about what “off-the-record” means. As the Council noted inter alia in 2003: “The Council is aware that some publications have a policy that staff will not accept ‘off the record’ or ‘background’ briefings at all . . .
“The Press Council’s view is that such policy questions are for editors to decide and to share with their staff.
“But the Council suggests that there is benefit in all parties to an interview where a source seeks to go off the record and where the reporter agrees, in the reporter asking him or her what they mean by that term.
“There is then less room for misunderstandings later and, perhaps, less likelihood of a complaint about a newspaper’s conduct becoming the subject of a Press Council complaint.”
The complaint is not upheld.