The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Mr James Scott of Matarangi Beach against an article about the development of Matarangi resort in the Coromandel published in The New Zealand Herald on 23 April 2003. He said that there were inaccuracies in the article, especially in statements attributed to him.

An earlier article on 9 April by the same reporter had drawn on an interview with the developer to give up-to-date news about the buoyant market for the sale of sections at Matarangi. There were said to be “80 golf-course sections” selling well in a new area away from the beach but lining the golf-course.

Mr Scott emailed a letter to the newspaper saying this article had been purely promotional. There were still concerns in the community about aspects of the development, including the water supply and flooding. His principal point was that the golf course no longer qualified as a championship course because the practice fairway was being eliminated for more housing. The modification of what had been originally promoted as a Bob Charles-designed championship course meant that “the Charles imprimatur” had been withdrawn.

The New Zealand Herald chose not to run Mr Scott’s email as a Letter to the Editor, but instead used it as the starting-point for a second article on the Matarangi development. Mr Scott was told of this intention and suggested two other residents who could contribute points of view.

This second article appeared on 23 April. Mr Scott complained to the editor, saying that he had not made some statements directly attributed to him, and that other statements in the article were distortions or inferences. He considered the use the newspaper had made of his emailed letter had been unreasonable and unfair. The editor rejected the complaint, saying that everything attributed to Mr Scott in the story was implicit in his email.

In his letter to the Press Council Mr Scott objected to the newspaper’s having turned his statement that “The practice fairway is being eliminated for more housing” into the headline “Sections stealing golf course land: resident”, with the follow-up comment: “But Scott said The Links sections were robbing land from the course.” He objected to his being described as “upset” about what was happening, and to other details in the article.

The editor said that the article had not distorted or misrepresented Mr Scott’s views. He agreed that in one sentence directly attributed to Mr Scott by quotation marks the word “imprimatur” had been replaced by “branding”, but said that this had in no way altered the sense of the sentence.

The Press Council notes that in taking up Mr Scott’s letter and making it the basis for a story the newspaper considerably sharpened his criticisms and broadened the matter by including comments from another resident as well as a vigorous response from the developer.

The Press Council agrees with the editor that in only one place was a statement quoted as Mr Scott’s own words at variance with what he said in the email. Such altering of a quotation is an unwise practice, but the seriousness of the particular change has to be assessed. It could well be argued in this instance that in changing the phrase “the Charles imprimatur” to “the Bob Charles branding” the newspaper was clarifying Mr Scott’s point by using a familiar commercial term in place of a learned latinate word with religious or official connotations. Not much weight can be attached to this item in the complaint.

The essence of the complainant’s case is that, in the absence of any further approach to him by the reporter, only words in his email should have been used in the article in reference to his views. The newspaper clearly screwed the tension over the Matarangi development up several notches. In using more aggressive and colourful language did the newspaper distort Mr Scott’s criticisms ? The Press Council thinks that it did not do so to any serious degree.

There is always the risk of creating a grievance when a story is developed from an unpublished Letter to the Editor. The complainant’s reaction to the heightened treatment given to his criticisms of the Matarangi development is understandable, but the Press Council does not consider that the particular ways in which the article departs from the wording of the complainant’s email amount to a significant breach of the Council’s principles.

The complaint is not upheld.

Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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