Case Number: 2668

Council Meeting: JUNE 2018

Decision: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald


[1] Janine Carr complains that New Zealand Herald articles dated April 25 and April 26, 2018 breach NZ Media Council Principles 1; 3; 4; 6 and 9.

[2] The first article School in turmoil: claims of ‘sexual behaviour’ referred to policeoutlined a number of issues at Whenuapai School including claims of ‘sexual behaviour’, a bullying culture within the school, staff turnover as well as the resignation of four Whenuapai School board of trustees representatives and a decline in the school roll.The second article ‘Sexual behaviour’ claims: Ministry of education asked to intervene at Whenuapai Schoolmentioned a request to the Ministry of Education for support by a Limited Statutory Manager as well as a letter sent out to parents from the Board of Trustees.

The complaint is upheld under Principle 1.

The Complaint

[3] The complaint is based on two New Zealand Herald articles.The first article carried the headline ‘School in turmoil: Claims of ‘sexual behaviour referred to police’ and the second article carried the headline ‘Sexual behaviour claims: Ministry of Education asked to intervene at Whenuapai School’.

[4] Ms Carr has complained the articles breach a number of NZ Media Council principles.The first breach relates to principle one, “I believe this series of articles is biased and intentionally misleading.”Ms Carr has further added that the articles are inaccurate by “leaving out key information and relying on implication and potential influence not data.”Ms Carr suggests the articles lack fairness and balance as they “only present the side of those upset not allowing other members of the community to speak.”

[5] There has been reference to a breach of principle three by Ms Carr, “It has left our children under pressure of public assumption and judgement and in danger of undue stress in their school environment as teachers are smeared and have been placed under undue stress.This was not taken into consideration by the publication.”

[6] In relation to principle four, Ms Carr has referred to the omission of fact as being misleading, “The implication of sexual behaviour being that kids are endangered, and staff is under suspicion.This is dangerous at best and incredibly harmful to the careers and reputation of all school employees.The behaviour is on record as not involving staff and followed up on correctly.It is misleading to not state such facts.”The article covered the decline in the school roll and Ms Carr has suggested that the information surrounding this is also misleading, “It also links a falling roll to this alleged behaviour

making no mention of pro-active changes to this growing vibrant community… the school closed off out-of-zone applications to allow for influx with the current building boom of the area.Again, this is not stated and clumsy worded at best but again seems intentionally misleading and inaccurate.I would suggest willingly so.” Based on the additional responses by Ms Carr, the NZ Media Council thinks this part of the complaint better fits under Principle one and this is reflected as such under the decision section of this paper.

For the purposes of clarity, the complaint relating to the following will be considered against Principle four, “The idea of a school being in turmoil is a comment and not a fact.”

[7] Regarding the headline and sub-heading, Ms Carr suggests Principle six has been breached on the basis that “the phrasing of the headline was not indicative of the story and sought to act as ‘click bait’. There is no verification for the reason board members left only inference and unjust emphasis on ‘sexual behaviour’ purely for shock value not for journalistic merit or public good.”In a further comment, Ms Carr complains that the “phrasing around sexual behaviour” is “highlighted in headlines and repeated through all of the articles.”Ms Carr is concerned with the repetitive use of the phrase “It is not done once but repeated with intent and unrequired weight.”

[8] Referring to the parent within the article that “did not wish to be named”, Ms Carr has suggested that Principle nine has been breached, “The intentional smearing of a community is not the media’s role and hearsay by individuals who remain unnamed is unfair and not indicative of the majority of the community opinion.”Ms Carr has provided further comment that theHerald “ignored the overwhelming positive response the school got in its own message board let alone anywhere else.”Ms Carr has also provided further comment on the ‘unnamed parent’, “They did state an unnamed parent’s thoughts and claims on behalf of others with not enough emphasis this was a tiny minority who had since moved on from the school community…I would also argue that this person is not able to speak on behalf of a community they no longer are a part of and thus cannot be considered a representative of.”

The Response

[9] Duty editor for the New Zealand Herald, Andrew Laxon has provided a response to the alleged breaches of the NZ Media Council principles.In response to the breach of principle one, Mr Laxon has stated, “theHerald has approached the board and principal several times seeking balancing comment.We have also chosen not to run some further comments and allegations by other parents critical of the school.”

[10] Mr Laxon does not agree that the articles implied that “staff were under suspicion.” He has explained that “the original article included the explanatory phrase ‘Both incidents are thought to have involved children’to avoid any suggestion that adults were involved.”However, further comment by Mr Laxon has acknowledged that the original wording was clearer, “With the benefit of hindsight, the wording about adults/children could have been clearer.The original copy read;‘Both incidents are thought to have involved children, not adults’.The phrase‘not adults’ was edited out in the subbing process, probably on the basis that it was redundant, but given the misunderstanding among some readers, I agree it would have been clearer to keep the original phrasing.”

[11] Mr Laxon has also suggested that it was relevant to have included the comment about the decline in the school roll, “Mentioning the school’s falling roll was relevant, as this can often reflect a lack of confidence in a school’s leadership by parents.Some parents we spoke to strongly believed this was the case.”Mr Laxon has addressed the concern raised about the school closing out-of-zone applications, “Ms Carr’s argument that Whenuapai School has had to reduce out-of-zone enrolments because of population growth in its home zone does not appear to be relevant when the school’s actual roll has fallen and several parents we spoke to link this to unhappiness about controversial incidents and the way the school has been run.”

[12] Referring to the headlines used in the articles, Mr Laxon has said that the headlines “did not refer to ‘sexual behaviour’ unjustly or for shock value” as this was the “language used to describe the problem by the Ministry of Education, which has appointed a limited statutory manager to take over the running of the school.”

[13] Mr Laxon does not agree that the information or comments included in the articles were obtained by subterfuge, “The articles did not rely on ‘hearsay by individuals who remain unnamed.’The main points were based on interventions by the Ministry of Education, the police and Oranga Tamariki.The articles also quoted the concerns of some parents who wished to remain anonymous.”

The Discussion

The Decision

[14] Principle one calls for a fair voice to be given to the opposition view where there is controversy or disagreement.Ms Carr has made the point that the articles lack accuracy, fairness and balance as there was a focus within the articles on members of the community who were disgruntled and upset and there was no representation of parents or members of the community who were supportive of the school.In a situation such as this complaint, the inclusion of views from members of the community and parents who were supportive of the school would have offered a fair voice and a more balanced view.The Media Council acknowledges that theNew Zealand Herald had approached the principal and board and offered repeated opportunities to respond but to no avail.Also, theNew Zealand Herald did not include further comments and allegations by other parents critical of the school.Ms Carr has said that she believes the articles are biased and intentionally misleading owing to the absence of key information and data.Also included in the complaint was the mention of the decline in the school roll.Ms Carr has objected to the inclusion of this without reference to the closure of out-of-zone applications which would have offered more context and clarity.The inclusion of the comment around the decline in the school roll was included by the New Zealand Herald after some parents they spoke to believed there was a correlation between the reduction in children enrolled at the school and the activity and incidents that had occurred at the school.

Ms Carr’s primary focus with the breach of this principle is the omission of fact which she says is misleading.The reference made within the articles involving sexual behaviour did not clearly state that adults were not involved, and Mr Laxon has acknowledged that the wording could have been clearer in this instance. The Media Council would agree with Ms Carr that it would have been prudent to include such information to offer clarification that adult employees at the school were not involved.

Principle 1 -Upheld.

[15] There was a suggestion by Ms Carr that the articles had placed the children under pressure of public assumption and judgement and in danger of undue stress in their school environment.In producing these articles, theNew Zealand Herald was compelled to demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest.The content of the articles is not focused on the children per se, but more on the environment of the school and incidents that have occurred at the school, the current status of the board of trustees as well as the request for an appointment of a Limited Statutory Manager.

Principle 3 - Not upheld.

[16] The first article carried the headline ‘School in turmoil’, Ms Carr considers the use of the word ‘turmoil’ as a comment rather than a fact.Taking into consideration the content of the articles, it would appear that the use of the word ‘turmoil’ has been arrived at based on the cumulative activity and incidents which had occurred at the school.

Principle 4 – Not upheld.

[17] Ms Carr has referred to the headlines of the articles as acting as click bait.The purpose of a headline is to accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report.In this matter, the content of the articles did reflect the headline. The first article refers to the report to police as well as the suggested term ‘turmoil’ based on the activity and incidents occurring at the school including the resignation of a number of board of trustee members.With reference to the second article, it could be argued that the inclusion of the phrase ‘Sexual behaviour’ was somewhat superfluous. The remainder of the headline did accurately reflect the content of the article namely the request to appoint a Limited Statutory Manager.

Principle 6 – Not upheld.

[18] In this matter the New Zealand Herald did not obtain information by subterfuge as the inclusion of quotes were from individuals who were willingly to share their view of their experience of the school.The content of the articles was based on actions undertaken by external parties in relation to the incidences that occurred within the school and the approach by the school to the external parties for assistance.

Principle 9 – Not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen (Chairman), Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.


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