JAMES GARDINER AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARDJames Gardiner, Communications Director, Massey University, complained to the Press Council about a Manawatu Standard story published on Stuff on 12 October 2011 and in the Standard on the same date.
The complaint is not upheld.
On September 28, 2011 Parliament passed a law commonly referred to as the Voluntary Student Membership Act (VSM). (This act is properly called the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act). The act makes membership of a student union, previously compulsory in most universities, voluntary from 2012.
Under the headline Hefty rises in student service fee the article started “A Massey University levy for student services has risen by up to 71 per cent, with the university unable to say what the money will be spent on”.
The article then went on to detail the amount of the increases, who will pay, and quoted Mr Gardiner as saying that “we cannot yet say which services will be funded and which will not”.
He was further quoted as making the following points: Universities are still in talks with the government about what services the levies will be able to fund; Massey has to reach agreement with the students’ association about which services should be provided.
The article then noted the passing of the new law and what this meant in terms of optional membership of a student association.
The final statement in the article was “Our levies …reflect the actual cost of providing universal services available to all students, which the students themselves have identified as important,” Mr Gardiner said.
In his complaint to the newspaper, Mr Gardiner said that the intro to the story was misleading.
He said it is already known what the existing levy money is spent on – student services. He stated that he had given examples of the specifics of these to the reporter. Further, it is known what the additional money will be spent on – student services currently provided by the student associations that will now have to be funded by the university.
The reason that Massey University could not be more specific was that the issue was still under discussion. They were negotiating with both government and students over what particular student services would still be provided.
In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Gardiner said that he felt strongly that the intro was misleading, and that one had to read well down the article to receive clarification of what was claimed in the first sentence.
Although it was not part of his original complaint to the Standard, he also complained that the “teaser” on the front page of the Standard including this statement – “the university unable to say what the money will be spent on” – further compounded the impression that the university was raising the student levy while unable to say what the money would be spent on.
In his final submission to the Press Council, Mr Gardiner reiterated that a reasonable reader would be misled by the story. It gave the strong impression that Massey University was raising its student services levy substantially, and could not provide information about how the money would be spent.
The Newspaper’s Response
In responding to the complaint, the editor claimed it was self-evident that a “levy for student services” is for student services. He stated it seems fairly clear that the second clause – “with the university unable to say what the money will be spent on” – refers to additional revenue that will be received by the increase.
The editor stated that if there was any confusion about why Massey is not able to say what will and will not be funded, this was made perfectly clear through Mr Gardiner’s comments further down the story.
In the editor’s view, the article – read in its entirety – is neither inaccurate nor misleading.
Finally, in response to the Press Council, the editor maintained his view that the intro was not misleading. Even had Mr Gardiner been correct in his claim, he could have sought “the natural remedy” of a brief clarification, though the complainant did seem to accept that clarification had eventually been provided by the rest of the story.
The editor also asked the Press Council to note that none of the on-line reader comments reacting to the story gave any indication that they interpreted the article as saying Massey University has done something wrong. If readers had interpreted the article as saying that Massey University had spent money obtained from students services levy on anything other than student services, the newspaper would have been inundated with letters and texts from readers critical of such impropriety.
Discussion and Conclusion
The fundamental point of disagreement between Mr Gardiner and the Manawatu Standard relates to whether or not the introduction to the article is misleading; the newspaper says it is not, Mr Gardiner says it is.
The Press Council has had to consider whether in essence the intro is accurate, and what impression a reader would gain from reading the article taken as a whole.
The “teaser” on the front page of the Standard certainly signals an article about an increased levy, with the University unable to say how the money will be spent. These points are also referred to in the headline and the intro to the story. However, neither is actually inaccurate, and even if there were any fleeting misapprehension or momentary confusion, it was resolved later in the report.
The details, explanations, and processes to be undertaken by the university in negotiating with students and the government about what specific services it should fund, are outlined in the article.
Mr Gardiner might have wished the article to include examples of how the student services fee is currently spent and it is noted that he did supply the reporter with some specifics. But this article was essentially about the increase in the student levy, not the existing situation.
The Press Council does not uphold this complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Barry Paterson and Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.