J.J.HARRISON AGAINST THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Case Number: 598

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 1995

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Daily Telegraph

The New Zealand Press Council has rejected a demand that the editor of the Napier Daily Telegraph retract and apologise for a statement made by a contributor to the paper's letters column. The Press Council found no ground for an allegation that the editor had known the statement to be false, misleading and malicious. At the same time, it questioned some aspects of the editor's handling of the issue.

On 9 October, the Daily Telegraph published a letter from Mr James White in which he criticised the campaign for the mayoralty of Mr Tony Reid and in particular his use of what he termed a "professional" to manage his campaign. He said that in this he shared the concerns of Mr John Harrison and went on to suggest that Mr Reid was the puppet of his campaign manager, Mr Pat Kane.

This drew replies from Mr Reid and Mr Harrison which were also published in the Daily Telegraph. Mr Reid on 10 October denied that he was the puppet of anyone and explained that he had employed a paid manager so as not to have to rely on the goodwill of others.

On 11 October Mr Harrison denied that he had ever expressed concern over the way in which Mr Reid's campaign was run, then made some critical observations about the effects of the mayor's actions upon Mr Kane's resignation from a public post and demanded that the editor retract and apologise for publishing misleading statements which, he said, were stated as a matter of fact not opinion.

In a footnote to Mr Harrison's letter, the editor said that the letters column allowed readers to express their opinions. It was not the newspaper's function to apologise for those opinions. He went on to observe that the mayor had nothing to do with Mr Kane's resignation.

Mr Harrison wrote again on 11 October saying that the editor's addendum was misplaced repeating his demand for retraction and apology. The letter was not published, but in a note to correspondents, the editor referred to "the blurred line between fact and opinion."

That led Mr Harrison to complain to the Press Council on 26 October. He said that the editor had been wrong both in his tailpiece to his letter to the paper, and in his later reference to the blurred line between fact and opinion. He said there was nothing blurred about James White's letter. It was an outright lie, published as a fact by the editor when he knew that the letter from his friend, Mr White, was false, misleading and malicious.

The editor told the Press Council that he objected to inferences that he had colluded with Mr White in publishing his letter. He was unaware why Mr While believed Mr Harrison was concerned about Mr Reid's campaign. His own footnote about the mayor and Mr Kane was designed to put Mr Harrison right on a fact, since matters of fact were being questioned. Right or wrongly, Mr White had a right to believe he and Mr Harrison shared a particular concern. This was where the blurring of fact and opinion came in. But it was not up to a newspaper to retract or apologise for an opinion firmly held by a correspondent. He firmly rejected the suggestion that he was party to publishing false and misleading material and that he was motivated by malice.

The final rejoinder was made by lawyers acting on Mr Harrison's behalf. They emphasised he had never expressed concern over Mr Reid's campaign manager. It was not sufficient for the editor to claim that Mr White was merely expressing an opinion for plainly he was not. Correspondents should be free to express views in the letters column, but especially during elections there was an overriding responsibility on the editor to satisfy himself as to the assertions of fact from which opinions might be given. The editor had not done this and harm had been done to Mr Reid's campaign and to Mr Harrison's credibility and support of Mr Reid.

During discussion of the complaint., members of the Press Council observed that reference to election candidates might have been expected to alert the editor of the Daily Telegraph to the need for special vigilance and questioned whether his corrective footnote to Mr Harrison's first letter was appropriate in the absence of enquiry by him about Mr White's statements.

The Press Council did not consider, however, that editors were obliged personally to answer for every assertion made by correspondents in the letters column or were expected to apologise when these were shown to be incorrect. The Press Council noted that the final letter on Mr Harrison's behalf did not repeat his assertion that the editor had known Mr White's letter to be false, misleading and malicious. The Press Council saw no evidence to support that assertion. It did not therefore, uphold the complaint or the forms of redress that had been sought.