The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the Minister of Food and Fibre, Hon J.Luxton, that the Timaru Herald had been unfair and biased in its coverage of a meeting addressed by the Minister in Fairlie on 16 October.

Mr Luxton complained to the editor that two-to-one coverage had been accorded to a two-minute outburst by Mr Keith Callaghan, whom he described as a well-known local critic. This had been put ahead of an hour and a half of comment, question and answer, by himself and others, and so amounted to an unfair assessment of what had been a generally positive meeting.

The editor denied that the coverage lacked balance since the article complained of was one of two devoted to the Fairlie meeting and another article had covered an address given by the Minister in Timaru on the previous day. He said that Mr Callaghan, so far from being a well-known critic, was unknown to him in 25 years in South Canterbury. His remarks had lasted, not two minutes, but a quarter of an hour and warranted reporting for their strength and content and the context in which they were made.

In a second letter, Mr Luxton accused the editor of apparent political bias in reporting Mr Callaghan’s statement and he went on to develop this and other objections in his complaint to the Press Council. He was concerned that a report on a meeting at which he was invited to discuss agricultural issues, gave dominant attention to remarks by a member of the audience complaining about various questions in the broad spectrum of government activities. The criticism was reported verbatim and there was a bold sensational headline. The totality of coverage given his visit to the area was irrelevant to what he saw as the distorted impressions of the Fairlie meeting and it was an unacceptable form of newspaper reporting that statements that were factually incorrect and refuted, should be reported as fact.

The editor told the Press Council that the total coverage accorded Mr Luxton was indeeed relevant to the allegations of imbalance and bias. Balance and fairness had been provided by the two articles on the Fairlie meeting. Fairlie was remote and opportunities for residents to tell ministers what they thought, were rare. The space accorded Mr Callaghan’s remarks was determined by their newsworthiness – a local resident taking a rare opportunity to tell a cabinet minister, face to face, what he felt on a wide variety of subjects. Mr Callaghan’s statements were not reported as fact. But if Mr Luxton’s view that opinions must be factually correct were to prevail, much of what newspapers report, including Parliament, would disappear.

The Press Council had little hesitation in not upholding the complaint. The article to which Mr Luxton objected, was written under the by-line of a Timaru Herald staff reporter, Helen Pickering. It was known in advance of the Fairlie meeting that Mr Callaghan had strong things to say, although he had been a loyal National Party member, not known for critical statements in public. It was understandable, the Council felt, that the reporter should have seen that as a piquant and newsworthy aspect of the meeting and that the exchanges between Mr Callaghan and the Minister should have provided the substance of the article under her by-line. The headline “Government a disaster, Luxton told” was cryptic and strong, but hardly sensational.

The second unattributed article gave a straightforward account of the Minister’s address, together with details of his replies to questions and comments from the audience.

When examining allegations of bias and imbalance, the Press Council has always given special importance to totality of coverage. In the light of the two articles devoted to the Minister’s meeting in Fairlie, the Council did not find the Timaru Herald had been at fault on the grounds advanced by Mr Luxton.

The Council also gave no weight to Mr Luxton’s contention that the Timaru Herald had unfairly presented Mr Callaghan’s criticisms as fact. Mr Callaghan’s opinions were his own and did not assume the quality of fact, or error, simply for having been reported. But it was important that the Timaru Herald should be free to report them.

The complaint, was, accordingly, not upheld.


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