JOHN CLEMENTS AGAINST RODNEY TIMESMr John Clements complained to the NZ Press Council about the overall coverage of local body politics by the Rodney Times during the lead up to the Local Body Elections in early October 2004.
In summary, Mr Clements argued that the incumbent Mayor, Mr John Law, and incumbent councillors of the Rodney District Council were treated unfavourably by the Rodney Times’s coverage of candidates and events. On the other hand, in his view, various challengers, including a candidate for Mayor, Mr Larry Mitchell, were treated much more favourably. His complaint traversed several areas where he believed the Rodney Times had transgressed against the Statement of Principles established by the Press Council.
He detailed examples (in his own words “each . . . perhaps, on its own, of only small importance”) that, in his opinion, cumulatively led to a lack of fairness and balance.
First, Mr Clements contended that a headline highlighting the results of an electoral poll conducted by the Rodney Times did not accurately reflect voter opinion and provided “a favourable connection” for the mayoral candidate, Mr Mitchell. However, that headline, “Mitchell popular with HBC voters” is technically accurate. In the eastern ward, Hibiscus Coast, Mr Mitchell was indeed more popular, albeit by a slim margin of 2.2%. Further, the headline supposedly favouring the challenger was immediately counter balanced by a sub-heading explaining that in the other two voting wards, the public remained “loyal” to the Mayor, Mr Law. Comments by both candidates were given prominence in an adjoining story.
Mr Clements also complained about the newspaper’s headline over an article about a press release from the Rodney District Council. The press release was titled “Rodney gets thumbs-up from residents”. The newspaper questioned whether the survey provided a genuine “thumbs-up” by asking “Feel-good survey or electioneering spin?” A reasonable question, as the measure of the Council’s performance over the previous year was only in the 50% – 60 % range and somewhat mixed. Vaguely positive perhaps, but hardly justifying a resounding “thumbs-up”. The complaints about misleading headlines are not upheld.
Another complaint referred to unbalanced coverage in the Letters to the Editor section of the newspaper, suggesting that letters in support of the Mayor were not published. However, the editor supplied sample pages for the three week period (14 September – 5 October) immediately before the Local Body Elections. Letters were published that supported the Mayor and, further, three letters were published by the Mayor, Mr Law and one by the challenger, Mr Mitchell. This complaint is not upheld.
Mr Clements also complained about a lack of balance in an article relating to a “secret” land swap deal. He submitted a front page article from August 12 pointing out that Mr Law was not given a right of reply to the comments by a business man who felt disadvantaged by the Council’s actions. However, this was the second article on this issue. Mr Law had been given much room for comment when the story first
“broke” on August 10. He was also given space for comment in a lengthy right of reply letter published on August 17. Journalistic balance is not necessarily provided in a single one-off article but often appears gradually, in overall coverage. This complaint is also not upheld.
Another complaint concerned the placement of an advertisement, just four days before the elections, encouraging readers to a website where they could apparently check candidates’ performances. The website contained extracts from various papers, including the Rodney Times, that were criticisms of the Mayor, Mr Law.
Advertisements do not fall under Press Council jurisdiction. However, it is worth noting that once the editor became aware of the advertisement, which was initially handled by the Advertising Manager, she cancelled further placements, published a disclaimer, obtained legal advice and ensured that no further material be published which might draw attention to the website while it was still online. In short, she acted sensibly and responsibly.
Finally, Mr Clements seems to complain about the editor not publishing a letter submitted by him for publication, shortly after the elections. The newspaper is not obliged to publish his letter – selection of letters is the prerogative of the editor. Mr Clements had also asked the editor for the contact details of other correspondents to the newspaper. Many newspapers have a policy of not disclosing such information and editors are certainly not obliged to supply these details.
The complainant suggested that, taken overall, and cumulatively, the coverage of events by the Rodney Times leading up to the local body elections was a “litany of lopsided letters, editorial comment and articles”. It is the Press Council’s view that the examples provided by the newspaper’s editor clearly show that different views were represented during a lively campaign to inform readers about issues and about candidates. Considerable space was devoted to the local body elections and the coverage was commendably fair and balanced.
Given the Press Council’s rejection of the specific complaints by Mr Clements, it follows that his general complaint about lack of fairness and balance is also not upheld.
All complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Murray Williams, Keith Lees and Terry Snow.