An Auckland mother and daughter who complained to the New Zealand Press Council about a column published in the New Zealand Herald and written by the paper's property writer, Anne Gibson, have had their complaint upheld.

The complaint by Jane and Pamela Anderson relates to the regular column Between The Lines, which was published on Saturday, May 28. The column attempted to draw a parallel between a neighbourhood dispute over the siting of a townhouse and the proposal by AMP to build a 34-level tower on the Auckland waterfront without letting all their neighbours have a say. What the Herald didn't explicitly tell its readers, to the chagrin of the Andersons, was that the neighbours involved in this disagreement included Gibson herself.

In her column, the paper's property writer hints at the relationship - it starts, "A couple of years back, some neighbours flogged off a back section…" -- and goes on to describe the townhouse as "unspeakably ugly - a three-level squeezed-up box on a tiny half-section…" She says it knocks out views, casts a shadow, removes sunlight and is painted in the "brightest and worst colour imaginable". Gibson also says the local council asked no one for input to the plans, allowing more building than its rulebook said, and refers to the neighbours as "smug in their delight at having blotted the landscape". She goes on to liken this to the AMP proposal and the situation in which an objector finds himself.

Sheila McCabe, of McCabe McMahon, barristers and solicitors, wrote to the Herald on behalf of the Andersons in early June, to formally complain. She told the paper the Andersons live close to Anne Gibson, whom they describe as a "most difficult neighbour". Ms McCabe says that, in isolation, the column would have been no more than offensive, inaccurate and petty. However, taken in the context of the "campaign of harassment and abuse" (from Anne Gibson) it was "vindictive, nasty and an abuse by Anne Gibson of her position at the New Zealand Herald".

The editor of the Herald acknowledged receipt of the solicitor's letter once he was reminded that no reply had been forthcoming. Ms McCabe sought a substantive response, but heard nothing. She then complained on behalf of her clients to the Press Council. When Herald editor Stephen Davis replied to the Press Council, he said this was a dispute between neighbours, not an issue of journalistic standards. Neither the paper nor the Council should be involved, he said. The Gibson column had identified no one, he continued.

The Press Council told Mr Davis it considered the complaint a legitimate one. The editor, responding three weeks later, repeated his belief that the paper and the Council had no role in a dispute between neighbours, particularly on the basis that it had been an opinion piece in which no one was named and where the facts were unchallenged. He said it was perfectly in order for columnists to use experiences from their private life in commentary, "providing they stick to the facts and do not do so maliciously".

In the Press Council complaint process, complainants and the newspaper involved each have two opportunities to comment on the matters in dispute. Thus, responding to Mr Davis's second letter to the Press Council, Sheila McCabe agreed that the Herald shouldn't be involved in a private dispute between neighbours but said that by publishing the column, the paper had clearly involved itself in just such a dispute.

She said the "facts" as Gibson had laid them out were clearly challenged by the Andersons. She also used Mr Davis's own words about columnists not acting maliciously to argue that that was precisely what Gibson had done. The Press Council found first, that the complaint from the Andersons clearly had substance and properly fell within its jurisdiction.

It also agreed with most of the Andersons' concerns as outlined by Ms McCabe - it was disingenuous of the Herald editor to say the complaint was a private one between neighbours when one of those neighbours - a Herald columnist - had herself put it in the public domain, albeit without naming names. Such disclosure by Gibson of her own role in the dispute was, in the Council's view, not only desirable but obligatory.

The Council accepts that columnists regularly draw on their life experience for their material. However, it's our view that this column overstepped the mark by misusing the newspaper columnist's traditionally wide brief and latitude. The column also represented opinion as fact when, as is clear from the McCabe letter to Mr Davis, many 'facts' as presented by the columnist were in dispute. This complaint would have been upheld on the grounds of accuracy alone. It is the Council's view that Gibson ought to have revealed the context of the neighbourhood dispute so readers could judge it for themselves or she ought not to have used her privileged position as a columnist in that way at all. In isolation the column would have read as a typically one-sided view of a neighbourhood squabble. But given the background to the dispute between Gibson and the Andersons, the AMP's proposed building on the Auckland waterfront seems to have provided Gibson with a convenient vehicle to express publicly her displeasure with her neighbours, and in such a way that they could not easily hit back.

It would be understandable if the editor wasn't aware of the background to this row at the outset. However, once this had been drawn to his attention, it was very unfortunate that he didn't respond personally to the Andersons' concern and then, when they complained to the Press Council, that he sought to suggest it wasn't a proper matter for adjudication. The Council believes that had Mr Davis investigated the complaint from the Andersons once it reached him via their lawyers, and responded promptly to it in the first instance, this matter might have never reached the Press Council.

This was properly a matter for the Press Council to adjudicate upon. The complaint is upheld.


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