Case Number: 3478

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2024

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Children and Young People
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: False Accusation
Right of Reply
Unfair Coverage


  1. Jacqueline Potter complains about an article Neighbours at war over Airbnb published by the Otago Daily Times on 14 September 2023. The complaint raises Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (2) Privacy, 3) Children and Young People, (4) Comment and Fact, (6) Headlines and Captions and (12) Corrections. The complaint is upheld on Principle (2) Privacy but not on (1), (3), (4), (6) or (12).

The Article

  1. The Otago Daily Times (ODT) article begins by noting a claim by a couple living next to an Airbnb (Hamish Meddings and Heather Breen) that they had become “hostages in their own home” due to loud music and swearing from the Airbnb. The owners of the Airbnb (the Potters) are then quoted as saying it is their guests who are the ones being abused.
  2. The article outlines in greater detail the claims of both sides. The article notes that the Potters were located overseas and recently had a hearing to get resource consent to operate the Airbnb. Mr Meddings and Ms Breen had opposed the resource consent application, with their submission containing details of alleged negative behaviour by Airbnb guests.
  3. Ms Potter refuted this account noting that the house had only been occupied 12 times over the last year and that guests had not caused any disturbances. In her view, the complaints were a response to an unrelated complaint they had made about Mr Meddings and Ms Breen running a commercial gym out of their property. The article concluded by noting that the Potters would be returning to Clyde permanently the following month and would be living at the property.

The Complaint

  1. Jacqueline Potter complains that the article was deliberately misleading. She is unhappy that much of the information she provided to the journalist disputing the claims made by Mr Meddings and Ms Breen, providing more context about the nature of the use of the Airbnb and her views on the nature of the gym run by Mr Meddings and Ms Breen was not used. Neither she, nor her husband, had had any direct contact with Mr Meddings or Ms Breen in a long time, and it was not accurate to describe them as feuding neighbours. She considers that a fair voice was not given to her views and that unnecessarily sensationalist language, particularly in the headline, was used.  
  2. She considers that she was given insufficient time to respond (slightly over three hours) at a time when the journalist knew she was teaching. There should have been no urgency involved with this article. She also states that Mr Medding and Ms Breen approached the ODT with this story and it did not come about, as the ODT suggests, because of the journalist being interested due to the resource consent hearing.
  3. She also considers that her privacy has been breached by the publication of her (and her husband’s) full name, the fact they were overseas and the address of the Airbnb property. The fact this is largely uninhabited is now well known and it has also had an impact on their Airbnb business. It was inaccurate to say that they would be living at the house in future as this was not their intention.

The Response

  1. The ODT notes that the substance of the report was drawn from papers related to the hearing into the resource consent application. The reporter was entitled to refer to those documents as they were in the public domain. This was done in an accurate, fair and balanced way.
  2. Mr Meddings and Ms Breen’s side of the story was conveyed in eight paragraphs and Ms Potter’s in six. This amounts to fair balance. The Potters may dispute the claims made by their neighbours, but they were central to the hearing, were of public interest and had to be reported to give context to the story. The article could have been written using only the papers related to the resource consent hearing, but the Potters were given a chance to comment and their perspective was put forward in the article. Some colourful language has been used, but this simply reflects the language used in the hearing documents and the comments in response by Ms Potter.
  3. The time frame for getting comment by Ms Potter was driven by the fact the hearing had taken place on 12 September 2023 and there was a desire to get an accurate report of the proceedings published as soon as possible. The matter was in the public domain and other media may have chosen to report on this as an issue of public concern. The short time to respond was not unreasonable. The reporter would have been entitled to write the piece entirely from the hearing documents and it reflects well on him that he did approach the Potters for comment.
  4. The headline was an accurate summary of the content of the article. The matter of the alleged commercial gym was not sufficiently relevant to the consent application for the AirBnb to require further discussion in the article.  
  5. On privacy, the ODT notes that the fact there was a planning dispute concerning the address was in the public domain and anyone visiting the council website could have accessed far more information about the Potters. The fact that the Potters lived away from their Clyde property was relevant as the ODT was reporting on a newsworthy application to operate it for residential accommodation. Even if the ODT had not explicitly made this point, a reasonable reader would have inferred from the application that the address was not the Potters’ main residence. The property was at the heart of the matter, as was the application for its future use. The fact the Potters were intending to return to it was a relevant matter. Moreover, this information was volunteered by Ms Potter.

The Discussion

  1. Ms Potter has raised a number of Media Council Principles in her complaint. However, we consider that it falls to be decided under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (2) Privacy and (6) Headlines and Captions.
  2. Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balances states:
Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
  1. We do not consider there has been a breach of this principle. This was a straightforward article reporting on complaints made in the context of a resource consent application. We disagree with the ODT that the number of paragraphs is a proxy for balance, however, we do agree that the article reflected both the nature of the complaint from the Mr Meddings and Ms Breen and contained sufficient balancing comment from Ms Potter.
  2. The timeframes given to Ms Potter to respond were tight, perhaps unnecessarily so. As the ODT acknowledges this was not helped by the time difference. We do not think there was any great urgency to get this article published and best practice would have been to give Ms Potter longer to response. The ODT may wish to reflect on this.
  3. Ultimately, however, Ms Potter was given an opportunity to respond and she was able to take it. Much of the later correspondence between Ms Potter and the ODT contains information she says supports her view that the complaints made by Mr Meddings and Ms Breen were baseless. That may well be the case, but we do not consider that it would have changed the general thrust of the article nor the key points of her response, which were recorded in the article. The information does not change the fact the complaint was made and contained in the publicly available papers relating to the resource consent application. Ms Potter is entitled to be unhappy the complaint was made, but the ODT was entitled to report on it and we consider it did so in a balanced way.
  4. Ms Potter’s initial complaint email to the ODT appears to acknowledge that they would be staying at the house when they returned to New Zealand and continues “but good on your journalist to advise we are staying there permanently. Our where abouts is our private business”. It is not clear to us whether this suggests the Potters will be living there permanently or not. In any event, we do not know what Ms Potter told the journalist during their initial conversation so we cannot say whether the statement in the article was inaccurate or not.
  5. Principle (6) Headlines and Captions notes that headlines should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. We agree that the headline is strong, but it does accurately reflect at least one reading of the story and draws on popular cliches to grab attention. This is not a breach of our principles. The two sets of neighbours may not have had direct contact in a long time, but that does not mean they are not in conflict.
  6. Paragraph Principal (2) Privacy relevantly states:
Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless, the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest
    1. The ODT cites previous decisions where the Media Council has declined to uphold a complaint on the basis that personal information had been published (Case 3249, 2692 and 2200). The facts of those cases are very different from this case, and we do not think they assist its determination. In another case (2711), we have noted that:
    We urge editors to think carefully about publishing exact addresses in their stories. On most occasions, they do not substantively add to the story especially when the public interest element of the story is covered off by other parts of the article. In other words, what is to be gained – or lost – by publishing the exact address.
    1. In that case the Council did not uphold a complaint by Housing New Zealand about the publication of a state house address as there was, at that stage, no tenant whose privacy could be breached and no-one involved was named.
    2. However, each case will depend on its facts and here we do consider that the Potters’ privacy has been breached. It was unnecessary to publish the addresses in question. The fact that the property was used as an Airbnb and the owners were overseas also gave rise to several risks, for example a risk of burglary or of a diminution in business given the ongoing dispute. We disagree that the fact the address could have been located by a motivated individual searching council records is an answer to the question.  There is a considerable difference between someone taking the further step of searching such a database to discover this information and a newspaper publishing the exact address.  Media stories are typically searchable online and stay there for a very long time. In some cases, for example where the information is volunteered or already in the public arena, it may be acceptable to publish an address, but in this case the public interest was not sufficient to warrant it. The actual address added nothing to the story, which could have easily reported on this issue of public interest without it.
    3. Decision: The complaint is upheld on Principle (2) Privacy. The complaint is not upheld on Principles (1), (3), (4), (6) and (12).

    Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Alison Thom, Ben France-Hudson, Clio Francis, Hank Schouten, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Rosemary Barraclough, Richard Pamatatau, Scott Inglis and Tim Watkin.


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