JANICE LEE AND EDGAR ROCHWALSKI AGAINST THE NEWS

Case Number: 2887

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Westport News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The complaint is mostly about two stories published on consecutive days in The News, which is a daily newspaper based in Westport. The stories headlinedPunakaiki water supply sabotaged and Water sabotage hurts Punakaiki were published on January 6 and 7, 2020.

2. The stories are about an attack on the town’s water supply and the disruption that ensued for residents and businesses.

The Complaint

3. Janice Lee and Edgar Rochwalski believe The News has breached several New Zealand Media Council principles, including Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Comment and Fact, Privacy and Corrections.

4. In a letter to the author of the stories and the paper’s editor and chief reporter, Lee Scanlon, they claim the stories are not “fair and balanced” and present “a biased account from local residents, business owners, and Buller District Council staff”. They also complain that some sources quoted in the story are unnamed.

5. They say that publishing their names as landowners on which a vandalised water supply weir was located breached their privacy and they were “not consulted” about this. Further, they say that “there is a definite innuendo that we have committed a criminal offence”.

6. A business owner was quoted in the story saying the vandals who put the town’s water supply in jeopardy “should be shot”. The complainants say that it was irresponsible for the newspaper’s editor to publish that quote as it “incites or invites anger and retaliation in a small community such as ours”.

7. The complainants say “steps were not taken to write this report with care and discretion and this breach of journalistic standards was made worse because death threats were involved”.

The Response

8. Responding for The News, editor/chief reporter Lee Scanlon rejected Ms Lee’s complaint that the stories breached NZMC principles. She said the January 6 story headlinedPunakaiki water supply sabotaged relied on information from a local resident and a council representative about the damaged weir. She said “none of the interviewees suggested Ms Lee or Mr Rochwalski was responsible for the damage and neither did our story”.

9. The story included a brief summary of previously published information about a dispute between the complainants and the council.

10. She said the story the next day was about the impact of the sabotaged water supply on businesses and residents. A comment from a local businessman that the vandals “should be shot” was a colloquialism.

11. “Neither he nor anyone else quoted in our January 7 story mentioned Ms Lee or Mr Rochwalski or implied they were responsible for the damage.”

12. Responding to the complainant’s claim of a privacy breach, Ms Scanlon said the couple’s ownership of the land on which the water weir is located and their dispute with the council was a matter of public record.

13. “This issue has been discussed at public council meetings and tabled in council papers. We reported on it three times last year.”

14. Ms Scanlon said for each of those stories the newspaper tried unsuccessfully to contact the couple or to find a telephone number for them.

15. “Sources told us Punakaiki was not their primary residence and they spent part of the year overseas.”

16. She said the newspaper had not received any complaints about any of the stories until the couple contacted her with a complaint on January 22 and she responded on the same day.

17. She said neither Ms Lee nor Mr Rochwalski had contacted the newspaper to “identify any errors in the stories of which they now complain”. “Nor have they detailed any errors in their complaint to the Media Council.”

18. Ms Scanlon said the couple had failed to explain why the newspaper should have sought an opposing view from them - if they had been able to contact them - when no one had suggested they had been implicated in the water supply sabotage.

19. If the couple had contacted them after the stories were published then the paper would have been “happy to consider publishing their views.”

20. Ms Scanlon says The News did in fact publish the complainants’ views on January 8 when the paper “republished most of aStuff story in which Ms Lee and Mr Rochwalski spoke of their right to interfere with the Punakaiki water supply”.

21. “This was also our first opportunity to publish the couple’s side of their dispute with council, because of our previous difficulties contacting them.”

22. Finally, Ms Scanlon invited the couple to “consider whether their comments toStuff have influenced the community’s attitude to them”.

Complainants’ Further Response

23. Responding to Ms Scalon, Ms Lee said the reason that the newspaper had not received any complaints was because Ms Lee and Mr Rochwalski were the affected party in the dispute.

24. She said she was aware that council agenda items are available to the public but she was unaware that the newspaper had written three stories about the dispute in 2019.

25. She said the newspaper used “emotive words” like “hard ball” in a heading on a 2019 story and the term “sabotage” in headings was sensational and amounted to bias in the stories.

26. She noted that the council had not used these terms in the minutes of the meetings when the issue was discussed.

27. Ms Lee said she did not respond to Ms Scanlon’s emails in 2019 because “we value our privacy”, she was involved in a legal situation and Ms Scalon “had shown contempt by previously using her unidentified sources to obtain our email address”.

28. Further, Ms Lee believed that the newspaper had again breached her privacy when Ms Scanlon included in her response that sources had told her that Punakaiki was not the couple’s primary residence.

The Newspaper's Final Response

29. Responding, Ms Scanlon said the public’s right to know about risks to a public water supply “takes precedence” over the couple’s right to privacy as landowners.

30. She said the words “sabotage” and “hardball” accurately reflected the facts of the story because someone had deliberately damaged the water supply and the council planned to take the land under the Public Works Act after years of unsuccessfully negotiating with the couple.

31. She said the couple complained that the paper did not contact them for comment but then complain “we invaded their privacy by trying to contact them”.

32. Over the past year the paper had emailed, sent a reporter to their remote property and sought their telephone number all without success.

33. Finally, Ms Scanlon noted that the couple did not appear to be concerned about privacy or legal issues when they spoke to aStuff reporter, noting that Stuff had a wider readership than The News.

The Decision

34. The Media Council believes the two stories published on January 6 and January 7 are fairly straightforward. The January 6 story headlinedPunakaiki water supply sabotaged tells of a police investigation into vandalism at the town’s water source. The story quotes anonymous people in the town as well as the council’s acting chief executive Sean Judd.

35. The story relies heavily on sources to give readers an understanding of the impact of the vandalism, the depth of feeling in the town towards the perpetrators and some context about the isolation of the weir and the difficulty most people would face finding its isolated location.

36. The Media Council acknowledges that journalists sometimes need to report information from unnamed sources. People in small towns can be reluctant to be named and although this is not ideal it is up to the journalist to weigh up the pros and cons when relying on unnamed sources. In this case the Media Council feels that the story was very much in the public interest and served readers well.

37. The story also includes some background paragraphs about Ms Lee’s and Mr Rochwalski’s previous interactions with council and the council’s decision to invoke the Public Works Act to secure the town’s water supply infrastructure.

38. The complainants say the inclusion of those paragraphs could lead readers to conclude that they were responsible for damaging the weir and committing a “criminal act”. The Media Council agrees that it is possible that readers could draw that conclusion but there is no direct link in the story that combines the two events.

39. Regardless, the dispute between the land owners and the Buller District Council is a matter of public record. Including those paragraphs in the stories gives readers a wider context about the water issues in Punakaiki and their gravity.

40. The Media Council also notes Ms Scanlon’s point about the follow-up story published on January 8, based on an interview the couple gave to aStuff reporter. In that story Mr Rochwalski admitted to Stuff that he interrupted the water supply to feed his hydroelectric generator.

41. The Media Council agrees with the newspaper on this point.

42. The fact that Mr Rochwalski talked openly about the dispute to Stuff, and admitted interfering with the weir, is at odds with the couple’s concerns about “innuendo” and “bias” inThe News’ stories.

43. The follow up story on January 7, Water sabotage hurts Punakaiki relies more heavily on named sources including staff from the Buller District Council, a business owner and police.

44. Throughout the story the vandalism at the weir is described as sabotage. In background stories the writer has used the term “hardball” to describe the council invoking the Public Works Act. The Media Council considers these terms appropriate under the circumstances.

45. The Media Council does not agree that the newspaper’s attempts to contact Ms Lee via email breached her privacy in any way. In order to achieve balance in stories reporters seek out people they need to talk to. This is not a breach of privacy. Nor is reporting the fact that the couple owned the land on which the weir is sited. Again, that is a matter of public record.

46. Quoting a business owner who said the vandals “should be shot” for the purposes of a news story is a figure of speech, not a death threat and appeared in a story in which the complainants were not named. The Council notes that Ms Lee has not provided any evidence of anger or violence directed at herself or her partner in her complaint.

Decision

47. Ms Lee and Mr Rochwalski have not provided sufficient grounds to support their complaint againstThe News, therefore the complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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