JOANNA MALCOLM AGAINST THE PRESSJoanna Malcolm complained that the inclusion of a Facebook post by Tina Nixon in the article “Roger Sutton and his dramatic downfall” published in The Press on December 6, 2014, breached Principle 1: Accuracy Fairness and Balance.
The complaint is not upheld.
On December 6, 2014, The Press ran a 3000-word feature on the issues surrounding the resignation of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) chief executive Roger Sutton at a press conference on November 17, after a complaint of sexual harassment against him was upheld by the State Services Commission. The handling of the complaint by the State Services Commission and Sutton’s resignation had been the subject of intense national interest in the weeks before publication.
The Press article sought to provide background and context to the debate on the issue, and quoted a number of sources both named and unnamed. It included a comment posted by former CERA communications staff member Tina Nixon on her Facebook page, which said, “I call on all journalists to apply some logic to this and get past the breathtaking PR snow job perpetrated by the self serving egotistical dictatorial narcissistic nasty prick Sutton is.”
The article noted that Nixon had herself been the subject of a complaint about bullying a female staff member. The complaint was made in the context of a wider personal grievance against CERA, which had been settled with a payout of about $5000. Nixon said she had not been disciplined. She had subsequently left CERA.
It also quoted an open letter written by the Canterbury Communities Earthquake Recovery Network, which praised Roger Sutton’s work.
The complainant did not initially develop an argument in relation to any Press Council principles, but asked the Council to consider The Press’ use of Tina Nixon’s Facebook post which she believed crossed an ethical boundary into personal abuse and vitriol.
She suggested that had Nixon been asked for a direct quote for The Press story, she would not have used such inflammatory language.
In a subsequent email, responding to points raised by the editor of The Press, the complainant cited Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and alleged the two quotes from the other side of the debate did not do enough to balance the article.
She said she accepted that media now uses Facebook posts for information and quotes, but said none of the comments on Nixon’s Facebook post that had been critical of Nixon and positive about Sutton had been quoted. She described the paper’s use of the post as “gratuitous and highly offensive”.
She complained that Sutton’s personality was described in subjective and “highly negative” terms in the article, and objected to some comments that were not attributed.
She noted that Sutton was not interviewed for the article.
The editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, said the Facebook comment about Sutton had been widely reported in the media, and widely viewed on Nixon’s Facebook page, and had been important to include in The Press story as it had played a part in shifting the tone of the public debate.
She said that using the full post, “including her strong language”, provided context as readers had been given an indication of “the possibly intemperate nature of her broader comments which related to her view of Mr Sutton’s behavior, and had only been partially quoted in the news previously”.
She stated that the comment was accurately reported, and the article was balanced in that the inclusion of “both ends of the spectrum of opinion effectively illustrated the heated nature of the discussion relating to Sutton”. She said Sutton had been approached for comment, but had declined to do so.
She believed the question of whether Nixon would have made the comment had she been phoned for an interview is hypothetical.
Discussion and Decision
The complaint raises an important question about the fairness of quoting personal abuse on social media in the pages of a newspaper. Jo Malcolm rightly questions whether the gratuitous insult would have appeared in a newspaper had it been made to one of its reporters. The editor of The Press is not sure on that point. It was difficult to respond hypothetically, she said. But in this case the comment was treated as one that was already in the public domain. Extracts of Tina Nixon’s comments had appeared in other media. The Press decided to use the full quote, including her strong language, the editor explained, “to give readers an indication of the possibly intemperate nature of her broader comments.”
The complainant clearly feels the effect of the abuse was quite different, unfairly damaging to Mr Sutton and produced an unbalanced article because no favourable quote of comparable force was published.
The Council’s newspaper representatives were divided on the question of whether words such as those quoted would normally be published. Clearly it is a matter of editorial judgment that may vary with circumstances.
In this case a majority of Council members took the view that the words on Facebook were in the public domain and the article was sufficiently balanced by positive comment about Mr Sutton by the Canterbury Communities Earthquake Recovery Network.
The complaint was not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
Sir John Hansen took no part in the consideration of this complaint.