Case Number: 3521

Council Meeting: 21 June 2024

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

The New Zealand Herald published a seven-part podcast series between November 2023 and February 2024 called Tangiwai: A Forgotten History. It marked the 70th anniversary of the Tangiwai rail disaster in which 151 people were killed.

 John Archer complained the series provided an unbalanced account of the work of the police and army and failed to mention the rescue efforts of the Mangamahu community who recovered bodies that were been washed 120 kilometres downstream after the disaster on December 24, 1953.

Mr Archer, who was 12 years old at the time, said: "It would seem the heroic 4 weeks of work done by the people of my downriver community of Mangamahu went unreported, as was the cowardice of the Wanganui police and their later theft of items entrusted to them, and the appalling lack of comradeship, commitment and courage shown by the army at the time. Why was my community's heroism not told, and those scandals not reported?"

Mr Archer detailed the nature of his community's efforts in his complaint and said this information has been on his website for the last 20 years. He said many bodies "have all steadfastly ignored the scandal of the government's failure to undertake the most difficult and dangerous body recoveries after the train disaster, and its failure to acknowledge those who did the work".

The NZ Herald responded, saying the podcast featured extensive coverage of the accident and its immediate aftermath with witnesses at the scene.

“In our research of the initial six episodes, nothing emerged from the sources we came across to suggest cowardice or theft on the part of Whanganui police at the time, nor concerns from the Mangamahu community.”

The NZ Herald added that it approached Mr Archer to take part in the initial production of the series, but he was not available at the time it was conducting in-person interviews. However, he was approached again and interviewed in the bonus/seventh episode of the podcast.

It said much of that interview focused on alleged misconduct or negligence by the Whanganui police.

“We were unable to corroborate those claims and so we made a decision to not make it an area of focus. Please note that we spoke to many people for this project and no one else but you raised these matters with us.

The NZ Herald said that with the anniversary of any major event - particularly one that happened many years ago – its coverage could never be a complete picture of what took place.

Mr Archer argued the series did not cover an area it should have. He was entitled to that view but that did not mean the podcast series was inaccurate unfair or unbalanced.

The NZ Media Council notes the final episode of the podcast included a brief interview with Mr Archer and his rendition of a song he wrote about the disaster. He described seeing a body on his dad’s truck and how those at Waiouru had more equipment than his community to deal with the bodies that floated down the river.

 Mr Archer told an interesting story about the efforts made by locals to retrieve the bodies without police or army assistance. However, the NZ Herald was unable to corroborate the serious allegations he made about the police, and it exercised its discretion not to report those allegations without supporting evidence.

The Council believes it would have been irresponsible and unfair to have reported his recollections without corroboration. These were the recollections of a person who was at the time a twelve year old child and involved most serious allegations not recorded at the time, of considerable consequence for the families of those criticised.  They were, without more hard evidence, understandably put to one side. It has not been shown that the podcast breached Principle (1) Accuracy Fairness and Balance.

Decision: There were no grounds to proceed.


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