J.TERRIS AGAINST THE EVENING POST

Case Number: 654

Council Meeting: JUNE 1997

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Evening Post

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the Mayor of Lower Hutt, Mr John Terris, that the Evening Post had been at fault in publishing as a direct quotation remarks that he had never made and that it had shown a lack of integrity in manipulating his words and attacking him.

During discussion within the Council, the majority view was that the wording employed by the Evening Post and its manner of presentation were acceptable as a consolidation of formulations Mr Terris had outlined or repeated. The Council felt that he had not assisted his complaint by saying that the words complained of were acceptable subject to being put in context and accompanied by qualifying remarks. And it did not accept his contention that he could not be held responsible for wording in an invitation issued over his name and initialled on his behalf.

The Press Council saw no lack of integrity in the Post’s presentation of Mr Terris’s opinions. At the same time, it felt that the complaint illuminated the need for special care by editors on the attribution of opinions within quotation marks.

The Council considered the complaint against the following factual background. On 22 October 1996, an invitation was extended to the media to attend a briefing on a new image for Hutt City. This was sent over the name of Mr Terris, though not signed by him, and began by posing interrogatively the words : “Hutt City. Flat as a motel carpet? Culturally dead and aesthetically bland ? A crime-ridden wasteland ?”

The invitation went on to say that these were stereotypic perceptions of Hutt City that many people held, but that people and businesses of Hutt City did not.

On 29 October, Mr Terris gave an address to the press denying the relevance of old stereotypes to present day Hutt City and announcing a new logo and slogan. Next day an Evening Post report on the address included the following paragraph on the mayor’s attitude. “Many see us as culturally dead and aesthetically bland, a crime-ridden industrial wasteland, as flat as a motel carpet. But that’s not how the people and businesses of Hutt City see themselves [he says]. Like all stereotypes, the truth is very different.”

On 26 December, an editorial in the Evening Post dealt with the practice whereby slogans are employed to enhance the profile of individual cities in response to what are seen as derogatory images of them. It gave Mr Terris as an example, saying that he seemed perennially unhappy at the way Hutt City is perceived. It then gave, as an apparently direct version of a statement by Mr Terris, the first sentence of the words attributed to him in the report of 30 October, namely “Many see us as culturally dead and aesthetically bland, a crime-ridden industrial wasteland, as flat as a motel carpet.” It then asked “Well is that negative reinforcement or not ?”

This drew a complaint from Mr Terris who said he had never used the words ascribed directly to him in quotation marks. He acknowledged that it could be argued that his original remarks had been paraphrased, but unless the context were explained, and his qualifying observations included, the editor’s use of them misrepresented what he said.

After exchanges between Mr Terris and the editor, a letter from him appeared in the Evening Post on 26 February. In this, he repeated his complaint that he had been inaccurately reported and demanded an acknowledgment that he had never used the words ascribed to him.

This drew a footnote from the editor, repeating the full quotation reproduced from the article of 30 October, and saying that Mr Terris’s tendency to repeat the arguably negative image others have of Hutt City, risked reinforcing the negativity he abhorred.

This led to Mr Terris’s complaint to the Press Council substantially on the lines already traversed in his exchanges with the editor. He said that words repeated within quotation marks would be taken by readers as the actual words of the person quoted. He had never used the words attributed to him in the editorial and editorial footnote. The Post had refused to acknowledge its fabrication and by repeating its attack on him had confirmed a lack of integrity apparently becoming the stock-in-trade of the New Zealand daily press.

On 2 April , the assistant editor of the Evening Post informed the Council that the quoted remarks had been taken from the invitation sent to the press on 22 October and asserted that the wording of the invitation matched that quoted in the newspaper. The reporter responsible had considered it legitimate to quote from the letter within the context of an article dealing with the city council’s efforts to alter the image of Hutt City. There could be no doubt about the authenticity of the quotation, for the invitation was to all intents and purposes, a public document offering the mayor’s views. He suggested that Mr Terris’s concern had less to do with the quotation’s accuracy than with the context in which it was used in the Boxing Day editorial. The Post saw no obligation to accompany the quotation with the qualifying remarks Mr Terris considered so important.

The Post was entitled to quote the sentence complained of as an example of Mr Terris’s tendency to dwell on his city’s negative image.

On 23 April Mr Terris repeated that he had never used the remarks he was alleged to have made. The invitation to the media meeting had been approved and signed, not by him, but by the city council’s communications manager. And the words used had been taken, not from anything he had prepared, but from observations by a writer in The Dominion newspaper and others. It was not true that he dwelt on Hutt’s negative image. For the Post to add quotation marks to represent as his view an attitude that he was refuting, was unacceptable. He had never used the words alleged.

To this, the Post rejoined on 30 April that the invitation sent out over his name could not be disavowed for being signed by someone else.

During discussion of the complaint, some differences of opinion were expressed within the Press Council. Some members felt that as an accurate rendition of something Mr Terris actually said, the quotation was deficient. They pointed out that it expressed positively words that in the mayor’s invitation were posed interrogatively and in a different order. Others felt that the presentation of the words in the form of a direct quotation was acceptable since they provided a reasonable paraphrase or summary of the observations covered in Mr Terris’s invitation and his speech to the media conference.

This was the majority view. But the Council as a whole felt that Mr Terris had weakened his complaint by his initial acceptance of the formulation in the article of 30 October. And it placed no weight on his contention that he had no responsibility for the invitation issued over his name and signed by someone else. That being said, the Press Council observed that the complaint pointed up the need for special care by newspapers in the attribution of statements within quotation marks.

Neither the editor of the Post Ms Suzanne Carty nor the paper’s political editor Brent Edwards, each a member of the Press Council, was present at the meeting when the complaint was considere.