JAY REID AGANIST THE DOMINION POSTJay Reid complained to the Press Council about an article published by The Dominion Post on 8 June 2010. He contended that the article breached Principles 1, 4 and 11.
His complaint is not upheld.
The subject article was headlined “Activist has cost council $384,477” and its primary focus was made clear from that headline, namely, to inform the public about the costs which the ratepayers were effectively incurring in the various and ongoing legal proceedings between Mr Reid and the Tararua District Council. In particular, the reporter detailed some of the steps which had been taken and/or were being taken to enforce recovery of a debt owed to the Tararua District Council by Mr Reid.
The newspaper also reported that the Tararua District Council was considering an attempt to have Mr Reid declared a vexatious litigant so that he would be prevented from bringing further legal proceedings against it or any of its staff without first getting the Court’s approval to do so.
Under the first head of complaint (accuracy) Mr Reid took issue with what he saw as an inferences that he was insolvent (which he denies) and that there were proceedings already in train to have him declared a vexatious litigant. He contended it was not correct for the newspaper to state that the Tararua District Council had petitioned for his bankruptcy for 5 years.
He also said it was not correct that the council had been “cleared of any wrongdoing”. He contended that the newspaper had failed to distinguish between fact and opinion.
He complained that the newspaper did not seek his comment on the article which it published with the consequence that it was unfair and unbalanced. Further, he alleged bias on the part of the newspaper.
He maintained that he fulfilled a wider advocacy role for the Woodville community and this role should have been attributed to him by the newspaper.
He had asked the editor to retract her false claims by way of a retraction / correction but that she had declined to do so.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor did not accept that the article implied Mr Reid to be insolvent. She said there was a distinction between someone who could not pay his debts and someone who chose not to. She maintained that the article made it clear that Mr Reid fell into the latter category. The reporter noted that a previous attempt to have Mr Reid adjudged bankrupt was not successful and that he was “fighting” the present proceedings.
The editor did not accept that there was any basis for Mr Reid to claim that proceedings to have him declared a vexatious litigant had already commenced. The reporter made it clear that the Tararua District Council was providing information to the Crown “in a bid to have Mr Reid classified as a vexatious litigant”.
In relation to the ‘five years’ claim, the editor maintained that it was not inaccurate to describe the proceedings in this way in that there had been ongoing court actions involving the parties over a period of some five years. A costs order in favour of the Tararua District Council had been made at the conclusion of an action brought by Mr Reid in 2004. There have been various attempts to have that debt recovered over the ensuing five years.
Without referring to any part of the substantive judgment, the editor also contends that the fact of a costs order having been made by the Court against Mr Reid shows that he had lost his claim that the sale of the block of land in Woodville had been illegal. She maintained that to state that the district council had been cleared of any wrongdoing was factually accurate and was not a matter of opinion.
The editor was satisfied that the reporter had made attempts to contact Mr Reid both before publication of the article and that the newspaper had been inviting him to comment after publication of it. Mr Reid subsequently provided written information but did not make any other contact with the newspaper. The offer of interview was not taken up. The editor maintained that she remained open to Mr Reid’s views and urged him to supply any further relevant information. She rejected the claim of bias.
In relation to Mr Reid’s claim that he fulfils a wider advocacy role in the Woodville community, the editor accepted that Mr Reid had both supporters and detractors. She exercised her editorial discretion in this particular story so that the focus was on Mr Reid’s individual responsibility for the costs being incurred by the Tararua District Council in its ongoing legal disputes with him. The editor maintained this was a matter of legitimate public interest to other affected ratepayers.
She also contended that there was no need to correct or retract any part of the published article as had been demanded by Mr Reid.
It is apparent that Mr Reid has firm views on the judgment issued by the High Court and from which the liability to pay costs to the Tararua District Council has arisen. It is not for this Council to become engaged in any aspect of debate about the Court’s judgment (which was not provided to us) and about which much of the ensuing litigation between Mr Reid and the Tararua District Council has revolved. We do observe, however, that costs orders fall as a matter of practice on unsuccessful parties. It is a matter of public record that the Judge imposed that liability on Mr Reid.
Our concern is whether the article breaches the Press Council Statement of Principles in any of the ways complained of by Mr Reid.
The Council concludes it does not. It is satisfied that the article accurately reported that Mr Reid was the judgment debtor in proceedings to have him adjudged bankrupt and that he was defending those proceedings. The article was accurate about the Tararua District Council providing information to the Crown with a view to a possible application to have him declared a vexatious litigant.
It might not be strictly accurate to state that the Tararua District Council “has petitioned for five years to bankrupt Mr Reid” but this alleged ‘inaccuracy’ when viewed against the reported observation of the Court of Appeal and the comments of His Honour Judge Ronald Young in relation to various stages of the ongoing litigation between the two parties does not suffice in the Council’s view to infringe the wider principle. It is apparent that the parties’ litigation (albeit not solely bankruptcy petitions) has taken various manifestations including appeals over what seems to be a largely ongoing and continuous 5 year period.
Insofar as the Court has ordered costs against Mr Reid, this Council concludes that the Court has found in favour of Tararua District Council and that the newspaper is entitled to report this fact.
In relation to the claim of bias, the editor has made it clear both to Mr Reid and to this Council that she remains open to Mr Reid providing her with further information which might substantiate any other story. The Council does not find evidence of the bias claimed by Mr Reid.
There is a factual dispute between the parties regarding pre-publication attempts to contact Mr Reid. On the information provided by each party, that factual dispute cannot be resolved by the Council. We observe, however, that the post-publication offers for interview of Mr Reid were not taken up so possible redress of any perceived imbalance was effectively passed up by the complainant.
We recognise that an editor is entitled to exercise her editorial discretion about ‘angles’ for any story. She chose here to focus on Mr Reid’s individual accountability to the district for legal costs incurred by the Tararua District Council. There is no obligation on an editor to seek wider comment (as desired by Mr Reid) in these circumstances.
Finally, the Council agrees that there was no need for any correction to be published for the reasons already set out.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.