GREG MITCHELL-KOUTTAB AGAINST HOROWHENUA CHRONICLE

Case Number: 3138

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2021

Verdict: Upheld

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance
Behaviour of Journalists
Apology and Correction Sought
Deception or Subterfuge
Schools

Overview

Summary

1.  This is a complaint about what is said to be an unfair, inaccurate and unbalanced article about a school meeting with parents.  The story went through two versions, first an online publication, which was, after complaints were received, taken off-line, and then a re-published revised article both on-line nine days later and in hard copy form, published the following week in the Horowhenua Chronicle.

2. The Media Council upholds the complaint against the first article as being inaccurate in parts and unbalanced.  The second article does not suffer from these problems, and it no longer includes material which could be construed as misinformation and gives more emphasis to the positive aspects of the future of the school, rather than the negative aspects and is therefore more balanced.  However the re-publication is nine days later, is expressed to be to achieve “clarity”, and there is no acknowledgement of the complaints and the fact that that there are material changes.  In terms of the correction principle, the errors were not promptly corrected with fair prominence.

The Article – two versions

First version

3. On 18 August 2021 the Horowhenua Chronicle published an on-line article under the heading Ōhau School Parents Question Teacher Exodus and Replacement of Board.  Above the headline there is a photo of children at Ōhau Primary School standing on a field to make the words “Ōhau Ag Day”.  The reporter stated that he had been invited by a group of parents to attend a meeting with “school bosses” to better understand why its school board was stood down and why half of its teaching staff had left. 

4. The article stated that concerned parents at the school were demanding to know why its governing body was stood down and why half its teaching staff had resigned.  It recorded that the school had been under statutory management “since the beginning of April” and the parents wanted to know why the school board was stood down and why four of the eight full-time teachers had resigned that year. It said that “more than 100 concerned parents demanded answers from the appointed Commissioner, the new school principal, and the ministry representative and school contact.  Several parents were visibly upset as they told about how the “constant teacher changes” were affecting their children.  

5. A number of parents were quoted dramatically setting out how their children were affected, including how angry they were as parents.  The Commissioner appointed to the school, who was at the meeting, is quoted as saying that the dissolution of the board had been kept low-key so as not to attract media attention, and that there had been liaison consultation and information as inserts in school newsletters.  It was commented, it seems by the reporter who wrote the article, that a search of school newsletters had found no mention of this.  There were a number of further quotes from the Commissioner which could be seen as having a defensive flavour, and give a less favourable impression of the school than the second version of the story, as detailed below.

6. The Ministry representative is then quoted, and is reported as saying that she “would not give specific reasons the school board was stood down”.  She is reported as expressing sympathy for the new principal.  The story reports parents’ questions about the new principal’s part-time work as a nurse and she is quoted as, saying she “hadn’t done much nursing” and for the rest of the year would give her full attention to the school.  This creates in the reader a somewhat negative impression of her position.

7. This online story was de-activated within a day, after complaints were received.  Ultimately under the same headline, a different article was published nine days later on-line and the second version was then printed in the Horowhenua Chronicle on September 3rd, 2021.

Second version

8. That article was very different.  It recorded that the school had been under statutory management “since April” and that there were concerns that staffing changes were having a negative effect on learning.  Parents were reported as expressing frustration with the staffing changes and how it was affecting the children.  The Commissioner, who was at the meeting, was reported as saying he understood the level of frustration but that it was important to get the school moving forward and that everyone work together to support the teaching staff of eight and the new principal.  Negative publicity could have a negative effect on children, and he said they could make positive changes.  It was reported he responded to questions about why teachers had left and why a replacement school board could not be established immediately. 

9. He was reported as saying that the Ministry became involved at the request of individual board members and that there had been a level of dysfunction.  The Ministry of Education representative expressed sympathy for the new principal. The new principal is reported as expressing her total commitment to the school and resolving issues.

10. In general terms, the second article is less critical of the new status quo.  Some of the critical detail is omitted.


The Complaint

11. The complaint is detailed and runs to over three pages.  Doing the best we can to summarise the key issues:

a) It is alleged that the school meeting was a private meeting and that the reporter was there surreptitiously and without permission.  Without permission, he wrongly quoted and published a photo of the Commissioner.

b) It said that the story was inaccurate, biased, unfair and based only on comments and stories made by a select group of parents and private friends of the reporter.  It gave the wrong impression in that the dissatisfied parents were a minority.  There were a number of negative statements about the functioning of the school and the meeting that were wrong.  The report damaged the school and breached the Media Council principles. 

c) It is said that the reporter later apologised to the Commissioner, and that he admitted to the Commissioner he was invited secretly to the meeting, reporting only one side of the story, and taking photos of the Commissioner surreptitiously.  Subterfuge is alleged.  It is said that the article was removed and the printing of the newspaper was delayed a day because of the reporter’s “breach of conduct”. 

d) It is said that the report was widely disseminated and has damaged the school.  Efforts have been made to recruit new staff and rebuild and this report was harmful to that.  It was felt that the publication had damaged the reputation and standing of the new principal. 

The Response

12. NZME considers the story a fair and honest account of the meeting and what was discussed.  The reporter did not attend under any false pretences and was not surreptitious or clandestine in his actions. 

13. The story was of significant public interest, and was a useful way to get information that was not otherwise available.  The reporter understood that parents had asked for the meeting and for some transparency.

14. It denies any breach of privacy.  Attendees could have no legitimate expectation of privacy as the meeting had been advertised on the school Facebook page.  Personal information about identifiable individuals was not reported.  The journalist who published the Commissioner’s photograph did contact the Commissioner, whose photo was taken down, but NZME did not admit bias or subterfuge as claimed. 

15. NZME does not accept that there were factual inaccuracies in the article.

16. NZME sets out a useful timeline which we set out in full, as there has been no response filed disputing any of the specific dates:

  • 16 August 2021 – reporter attends meeting at Ōhau School.
  • 18 August 2021 – initial publication of story on Horowhenua Chronicle website.
  • 19 August 2021 – complaints are received from parents by telephone.
  • 19 August 2021 – story deactivated without prejudice while complaints considered.
  • 19 August 2021 – received further complaints.
  • 19 August 2021 – editor asks for changes to improve flow and clarity of story (but not substance).
  • 19 August 2021 – reporter contacts Commissioner to follow up article.
  • 20 August 2021 – complaint sent to New Zealand Herald by Mr Mitchell-Kouttab.  The story remains deactivated.
  • 27 August 2021 – response sent to Mr Mitchell-Kouttab.
  • 27 August 2021 – amended story activated.
  • 3 September 2021 – amended story appears in print.
  • 13 September 2021 – Media Council complaint.
  • 17 September 2021 – minor changes made to online article’s first two lines.

The Decision

Analysis

Subterfuge

17. It was said that the reporter was there surreptitiously and without permission, and it is said that there was “subterfuge”.

18. There is nothing to indicate that the meeting was designated to be private or confidential.  It was after all a meeting of parents with the Commissioner on a matter of considerable public interest, namely the appointment of a commissioner to a school and the replacement of a school board.  These matters all indicated that the school had not been functioning well.  This is a matter of considerable community interest, involving the education of young children.  The meeting was advertised on the school Facebook page.  It cannot be said that the nature of the meeting was private, and there is nothing to indicate that it was described as a private meeting.

19. There is also nothing to indicate that the reporter told any lie or took any steps to disguise his identity (save for taking photographs in a clandestine way rather than publicly).  It does not appear to be in dispute that he was invited by a group of parents who represent a particular point of view. He was not required to provide any proof of identity and there was no statement at the commencement of the meeting that it was private or any request that members of the media leave or identify themselves. 

20. We do not therefore accept that the word “subterfuge” is accurately applied to the reporter’s actions.  There was no doubt that he did not declare that he was a reporter, and it is perhaps understandable that parents who were present and later discovered that there had been a reporter there without their knowledge should feel let down and angry.  Undoubtedly it would have been courteous for the reporter to have identified his presence.  Many, if not all parents would have assumed there were no members of the media present, and would have been surprised to see the meeting reported. NZME acknowledges he should have identified himself.  However on balance we do not think that this amounts to subterfuge as being information “obtained by subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonest means” in terms of Principle 9 of the Media Council principles.

21. We have concerns about the clandestine photographing of the Commissioner.  NZME does not deny that the reporter apologised to the Commissioner, although it is not clear what his apology covered.  However we have not received a complaint on this from the Commissioner, and on the slender information available are not prepared to uphold on that ground.

Alleged specific mistakes

Number of teacher resignations

22. It is said that it was wrong for the reporter to record that parents were demanding to know why “half” of the teaching staff had resigned.  The complainant states that half the teachers did not resign, and that only three out of ten teachers resigned.  Of those, not all were full time teachers.

23. It is to be noted that this is a report on what the concerned parents were demanding to know, not a statement of fact.  It reports a question.

24. It is not suggested in the complaint that no concerned parent asked the question of why half the teaching staff had resigned.  The point is made rather that half of the teachers did not resign; only three teachers resigned, and of those two were not entirely fulltime.  However, that part of the complaint goes on to record that other teachers had resigned in the previous year and at the beginning of this year. 

25. It seems to us to be uncertain as to how many teachers resigned, but there is no doubt that the concerned parents were concerned that quite a number of staff had resigned.  We are far from clear that any inaccuracy has been shown here, given that this statement was a report of what others said, and did not purport to be a statement of fact.

26. The statement was removed in the second version of the article.

Date of statutory management

27. The complaint is made that it was wrong to say that the Ministry of Education statutory management had been in place since “the beginning of April”.  The statement that was made in the original report.  In fact it began on 23 April.

28. The time difference is a matter of three weeks in a time frame of about four months leading up to the article. The point being made was that the statutory management had not been known about for some time.  We do not see this as a serious mistake, but it was an error.

29. The reference to “beginning’ was removed in the second version of the article.

Number of teacher changes in a class

30. There was then a complaint about the statement that the parents had fears about the constant changes in staff, one class having had eight teachers so far in the year.  The point in the complaint was that no single class had ever had eight “appointed” teachers at the school.  It is not denied that they might have had eight teachers.  What is said is that some of these may well have been relievers, who appear in every school.

31. The statement in question is again a reference or quote of what a group of parents were saying.  It does not purport to be a statement of fact.  In any event it is not clear to us that there is any inaccuracy.  It is not denied that some classes, or at least one class, has had eight teachers in one year.  It does not seem to us to be critical whether they were relievers or permanent teachers, as that is not an issue addressed in the statement.  Readers will be well aware that there are often relievers appointed to look after a class in perfectly well-taught classes and well-run schools.  Nevertheless, the figure of eight different teachers, even if some of them are relievers, would be seen by some as startling.

32. The statement was removed in the second version of the article.

100 concerned parents

33. The assertion that there were more than 100 concerned parents in attendance was challenged in the complaint.  It is said that out of the parents present, there were no more than 10 parents who demanded answers.  There were many parents who were concerned at the way that group of 10 were behaving.

34. This does purport to be an actual report, rather than a quote.  We think that there is an element of hyperbole in “more than 100 concerned parents” and it was an inaccurate statement.  It is clear that a lot of the parents there were supportive of the new regime.  They had a different view from the smaller group who had invited the reporter. 

35. This seems to be an important error.  The general perception given by the first story, indicated by the above factual references, and quotes from angry parents, is that this was a meeting of parents who were concerned and indeed angry with the new regime, whereas in reality only a smaller group of the parents had this degree of concern and anger. This seems to us to have been inaccurate, or at least unbalanced.

36. The reference to 100 concerned parents was removed in the second version.

Other allegations

37. There are other allegations of inaccuracy in relation to some parents being visibly upset, some parents being angry, and a statement alleging “you cannot run a school with babysitters”.  These are not shown to be inaccurate statements, but rather a reflection of what parents from the smaller group at the meeting were saying and thinking.  There was again criticism of the statement that there was a “large show of hands” on a question as to whether the constant teacher changes had created anxiety.  It was said that only about 10 parents raised their hands, and this also gave the wrong impression.

This latter statement was removed in the second version.  

Consultation by the Commissioner

38. It is reported that the Commissioner had said that the dissolution of the board had been kept low-key so as not to attract negative media attention, that there had been consultation through a stakeholder group, and that information had been distributed as inserts in school newsletters.  It is then said “however, a search of school newsletters online could find no mention”. 

39. This is an implicit statement that the Commissioner was wrong when he said that there were inserts in school newsletters.  In fact it seems that the reporter was wrong, and that there were in fact newsletters sent to parents on 5 May and 29 June that did give information about the issues, but which were not available on the website and had not been seen by the reporter.  It would appear that the reporter had based his statement on just what he could find on the school website.

40. This statement is not in the second version of the article.

41. In our view there were a number of factual mistakes in the first version of the article, removed in the second.  They contributed to the much more negative impression of the school given in the first version, in contrast to the second.

Negative reference to the principal

42. The representative of the Ministry is reported as stressing that the new principal’s arrival at the school was not related to the appointment of the Commissioner, and that the new principal was totally committed to the school and wanted everyone to work together.  It is reported that she answered parents’ questions about her part-time work as a nurse.  She said she would no longer do this. 

43. This part of the report is also criticised on the basis that the principal was not working as a part-time nurse, but as a casual.  It is also asserted that this is an unfair invasion of her privacy, as her private life had nothing to do with the issues.  It was said to have been shocking that some of the parents would have gone this far.

44. We are unable to agree with this part of the complaint.  As a school principal, her employment and other occupation is a matter of legitimate public interest.  It was something that was fairly raised by the parents, and the report is not in itself unsympathetic to the principal.  Even in the first article it records at the end that she had not done a great deal of part-time work and would not be doing any more, giving her full attention to the school.  It also reported the Commissioner making a sympathetic statement about the principal and indicating that part-time work by a principal in the weekends would be perfectly acceptable.

45. Overall, we do not see this part of the complaint as having any basis.

Difference in tone in second version

46, Such inaccuracies as existed in the article were only present for the time that it was online and were fixed in the later online version and printed article.  It was first published on 18 August, and taken down some time on 19 August.  The printed article modified all these key allegations where there was arguable inaccuracy as follows:

a) There was a difference in tone.  Instead of it starting with “concerned parents … demanding to know …” it starts parents “… met with school bosses …”.  It deletes a reference to the Horowhenua Chronicle having been invited by a group of parents to attend the meeting.  It deletes reference to the parents being “outraged” at the appointment of the Commissioner and wanting to know why the school board was stood down and four of the eight fulltime teachers had resigned.  Instead, it says that some parents were “concerned” at the statutory management.  It is not said to have started at the beginning of April but is stated to have been “since April”.  Reference to an exodus of staff is deleted as is “cost and changes in staff”.  The reference to parents being “visibly upset” is deleted, although the parents are quoted as being “really angry” about what their children are going through.  The quotes of parents are the same.

b) The Commissioner’s responses are set out clearly.  It is stated that he understood the level of frustration but it was important to keep the school moving forward.  This paragraph was not in the original article.  Much of the reporting of the Commissioner’s responses are the same in both articles. 

c) Reports of the Ministry representative are largely the same in both articles. 

d) The reference to the principal’s part-time job is deleted.  The article ends on a new positive note quoting her saying that she was totally committed to the school and wanted everyone to work together to be “part of the solution”.

47. On an overview there is a distinct difference in tone between the two articles.  The original article indicated an angry and very dissatisfied group of parents angrily questioning the Commissioner and Ministry representative and querying the principal.  The impression was of significant dissatisfaction amongst parents with the status quo that followed the appointment of the Commissioner.  The way in which the first article is structured gives the impression that the Commissioner, representative and principal are on the defensive.

48. The second article is considerably more moderate in the impression it gives.  While it contains a lot of the same material, it is fair to say that the introductory and scene setting part of the article is re-written.  It indicates that a group of parents (not all the parents there), were concerned about the appointment of a Commissioner and what had followed, and the complaints of the parents are very much balanced by the fuller reporting of the Commissioner’s and principal’s positive responses and the omission of negative material about the principal. 

49. The overall impression of the first article is that there is something deeply wrong at the school.  The overall impression gained from the second article is that the school has been through a significant ordeal and that there have been unsatisfactory developments through the year with some parents very concerned, but that change had to be made and there is a more positive view now being taken about the present functioning and future of the school.

Conclusion

50. In general terms the second version is not inconsistent with the version of the meeting given by the complainant. It confirms our view that the first article contained material inaccuracies.  Those inaccuracies and the words used created an incorrect impression of the nature of the meeting.  We conclude also that the first version was an unbalanced account of the meeting.

Does the publication of the second version defuse the complaint?

51. At the end of the second version of the article it is stated “This story has been edited for clarity since initial publication”.  It was changed as we have set out.

52. The first article was only published online, and then only for a short period.  There was then a delay, and then a new article published which in our view does not have the same errors, either in inaccuracies or lack of balance. 

The Media Council principles say:

 A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be admitted and promptly corrected, giving the correction fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.

53. Here the damage has been reduced by a quick withdrawal of damaging material, and the ultimate article largely corrects the errors, (without acknowledgement of the earlier inaccuracies).  The principle applies.  Is the correction sufficient?

54. The acknowledgement of the reason for the editing seems rather misleading to us, as it seems wrong to say it was edited “for clarity”.  The edits only achieve clarity because they remove incorrect or arguably incorrect material, and through some deletions and new words provide a more balanced report of the meeting.  There was no tone of apology or regret for the first article.  The earlier article was a piece of unfair and at times inaccurate reporting, but that impression would remain unless someone who had read the original article bothered to read the new one which appeared to be materially the same.

55. The Media Council is supportive of efforts to report matters relating to schools that have suffered from a dysfunctional period.  This is the sort of thing that newspapers should be reporting.  While the first article had a negative ring, the second article, which is the one that is still online today and was printed, presents on an overview a positive impression of recent developments and the future of the school.  On its own it was balanced, and we would not have upheld the complaint if it related only to that version.

56. However, the first online article contained inaccuracies, and together with other detail removed later gave a misleading and unbalanced account of the meeting.  The removal of that article might have fixed the problem, if the second version had made clear promptly that it was a correcting article reflecting complaints received. 

57. A correction in terms of Principle 12 of the Media Council principles often defuses a complaint.  As a corollary, “significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence”.  We acknowledge that there was a prompt take-down, but there was a delay of nine days in publishing the second version.  More importantly it did not on an objective analysis “defuse” the complaint. It was not a prompt “correction with fair prominence”.  Indeed it did not purport to be a correction at all.

Result

58. We uphold the complaint on this basis that the first version of the article contained inaccurate statements, created an inaccurate impression of the nature of the meeting, and was unbalanced.


Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Liz Brown took no part in the consideration of this complaint.  Craig Cooper stood down to maintain the public member majority.



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