JAMIE SIMMONDS AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3339

Council Meeting: October 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories:

Overview

1. On 31 July 2022, the NZ Herald published an article entitled National open to changes to housing law that rezones heritage areas for high density housing. Jamie Simmonds complains under Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle (4) Comment and Fact and Principle (6) Headlines and Captions. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

2. The NZ Herald article National open to changes to housing law that rezones heritage areas for high density housing reports on the meeting Say No to Government Housing. The meeting was called by groups who oppose government law changes instructing Auckland Council to change the Unitary Plan to allow for more intensification.

3. The article outlines what various speakers said during the meeting. Chris Bishop, National’s Housing spokesperson, was cited as being open to making changes in the law but could not comment on specifics as the legislation was still in the House.

4. ACT party leader, David Seymour was cited as being opposed to the law.  Green MP, Chloe Swarbrick, stated that the status quo is untenable and urged greater protection for trees. 

5. Character Coalition spokesperson, Sally Hughes sought to debunk the myth that affordable housing could only be achieved through the ‘destruction’ of Special Character Areas. Her comments were supported by Councillor Wayne Walker and Mayoral Candidate, Mike Kampkes. 

The Complaint

6. Jamie Simmonds complains raising six issues.  First, under Principle (1): Accuracy, Simmonds argues that ‘heritage’ is used inaccurately.  The phrase “Special Character Areas - where houses with heritage values protected in the Unitary Plan" for Simmonds creates the impression that the upcoming law changes will remove protection for homes listed with Heritage New Zealand. Simmonds states that this is incorrect because Special Character Areas aren't listed with Heritage New Zealand, and ‘heritage values’ wasn't one of the selection criteria Auckland Council used to determine the homes that would be in special character areas. 
 
7. Under the same Principle, Simmonds complains about the use of term high density.  The article states "The National Party is open to making changes to a controversial housing law that rezones a big chunk of Auckland's kauri villas and bungalows for high density housing." Simmonds argues that the re-zoning for most of these homes will be for medium density housing, not high density.

8. Further, under Principle(1) Simmonds argues that sentence "About 200 people attended the meeting, 'Say No to Government Housing Rules', at St Matthews in the City to oppose Government law changes instructing Auckland Council to change the Unitary Plan to allow for more intensification" implies all attendees opposed the law changes. Instead, Simmonds states that there was a sizable group there to support pro-density. 

9. Also under Principle (1), Simmonds says the article over-editorialises National’s position by implying that the focus of Chris Bishop's comments was that National is willing to change the law. Instead, Simmonds states that when he spoke at the meeting, Bishop made it clear that National supported the law, and had supported relaxing zoning laws for 20 years but that National was always open to feedback and change on any law.

10. Finally, under Principle (6) : Headlines and Captions, Simmonds argues that one of the captions was inaccurate as it reads "Public Meeting at St Matthews-in-the-City to oppose the housing intensification legislation". Simmonds argues that the meeting was a private one, as entry was by invitation only. 

The Response

11.The Herald responds to the question of the definition of heritage by stating that, in their view, Special Character Areas (SCAs) do provide blanket protections for areas with special architectural values and while SCAs are not listed with Heritage New Zealand, protection is about specific sites and individual buildings, rather than providing blanket protection for particular suburbs or areas.

12. It also responds to the issues of the misuse of the term ‘medium density’ but stating that the law changes allow for at least six storeys within “walkable areas” of the central city and 10 other large centres. In their view, many reliable sources would describe six-storey buildings as high-density.

13. The Herald responds to the issue of misrepresenting the composition of the audience by providing evidence that the pro-density members of the audience were in the minority.  As such, they do not respond to the issue of whether they misrepresented the composition of the audience.

14. Regarding misrepresenting National’s position, the Herald submits it accurately captured the views of all the speakers and notes that the comments must be accurate because neither Bishop nor any other political party complained.

15. Finally, the issue of the meeting being labelled ‘public’ in a caption, the Herald contends that multiple media organisations were invited and as such it cannot be considered a private event so the meeting being labelled ‘public’ in a caption was not inaccurate.

The Discussion

16. It is regrettable that the NZ Herald mislaid Simmonds’ initial complaint in a miscommunication between a reporter and manager.  It is also regrettable that their response does not fully address the issues of the complaint at hand.

17. The Media Council notes that the article has been subject to revision soon after publication to address a ‘factual’ error about the specifications of the height of buildings usually allowed under council plans. 

18. The complaint rests on the use and interpretation of words: heritage, high density, public and the statements of a politician leaving the door open for future change, which is not an uncommon practice. 

19. Readers drawing on the everyday use of these words are likely be clear on their meaning.  ‘Heritage’ usually means something of historical value, not necessarily a building or area protected by the Historic Places Trust.  ‘High density’ is unlikely to have a precise definition in readers’ minds but the concept of too many houses in one place is likely conveyed.  Likewise, the media was invited to the meeting, probably with the expectation that it would be publicly reported on, and some members who opposed the organisers’ viewpoint got in, so arguably the meeting was not private.

20. The Council observes that the article is a record of a meeting, albeit on a hotly contested issue, called by a group with a specific position.  The article contains summaries of the speakers and their views, including a spokesperson for the meeting organisers and national and local body politicians. 

21. Principle (1) aims to ensure that readers are not deliberately misled or misinformed by commission or omission.  A measure of substance is needed for an article to mislead.  While some terms used in the article are contested, the average reader is likely clear on the purpose of the meeting and the position of those who spoke. As such, the Council can see no evidence in the uses of the terms in question in the article that would meet the threshold required for an uphold. 

22. However, the Council notes that had the NZ Herald used more precise language, this complaint could have been avoided. 

23. Decision: Not uphold

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (Chair), Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough and Jonathan Mackenzie. Council members Ben France-Hudson and Scott Inglis withdrew and did not consider this complaint because of conflicts of interest. 

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