JOHN FULTON AGAINST THE PRESSJohn Fulton, a survivor of the Wahine disaster of 10 April 1968, complained to the Press Council about inaccuracies in a graphic published in The Press on the 40th anniversary of that tragic event. The complaint is not upheld.
The half page graphic, under the headline “The Wahine Disaster”, depicted events leading to the sinking, provided a timeline from 6.10 am to 2.30 pm on 10 April, and showed photographs of survivors, helpers, and the stricken ship. At the bottom, there was a short summary of weather and other conditions leading to the tragedy.
The graphic was clearly an attempt to bring readers of today to a broad understanding of the events 40 years ago.
John Fulton complained to the editor that there were a number of inaccuracies in the graphic. It did not show that a massive wave hit the ship at 6.15 am compounding problems already being experienced in shocking conditions; that the ship was returning to open sea when the erroneous decision was made to reverse the ship which led to the grounding on Pinnacle Rock; that the impact caused the starboard propeller to be shorn off; that the ship had two anchors out and was dragging its way up the harbour stern first; that errors were made in depicting the position of key geographical features.
Mr Fulton was also critical of inaccuracies related to the survivors and those who did not survive.
In a further letter of complaint Mr Fulton listed a number of further issues with The Press which concerned his perception that he was not given due attention during his attempts to correct what he considered the inaccuracies in the graphic.
He again stated that the story that the paper endorsed by publishing the graphic had inaccuracies, and that neither the editor nor his staff had taken the trouble to verify the facts of “that terrible day”.
In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Fulton reiterated statements made to the editor of The Press: the graphic should be retracted and a completely new graphic designed to show accurately the events of that tragic day. A full retraction should be made, with full apologies to the survivors, and relatives and friends of those who did not survive. Only by recounting events accurately would the true story be known to thousands of readers.
The Newspaper’s Response
Mr Fulton had made an appointment to meet with the editor of The Press in order to set the record straight. In the event, he met with the deputy editor, Coen Lammers, and then followed this visit up with a letter in which he again outlined his concerns about the accuracy of the graphic and the need for the newspaper to make a formal apology.
Mr Lammers’ in a letter of response, pointed out that the graphic on the Wahine disaster was based on official records of the disaster. He acknowledged that Mr Fulton disputed much of this information.
He stated that the points raised by Mr Fulton were not sufficient for a substantial follow-up or correction at that time.
However, he had suggested to the paper’s chief reporter that Mr Fulton’s account of the Wahine disaster could give an interesting slant on the story in next year’s commemoration story.
Mr Lammers also acknowledged the ongoing pain and distress that the Wahine disaster has caused Mr Fulton.
To the Press Council the editor stated the graphic was well sourced from information provided by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Wellington libraries. They accepted there was one minor error but, in the context of the whole graphic, it was not of such magnitude as to warrant re-publication.
The Wahine disaster is engraved on the minds of all New Zealanders old enough to remember that terrible event. For those who were passengers or staff on the ferry, the events will never go away.
It is completely understandable that people who experienced the disaster want to ensure that the last hours of the Wahine afloat are remembered and represented accurately,
Forty years on, it is clear that there are still some tensions about what actually happened, and to summarise the events of that dreadful day in graphic form will inevitably lead to disagreement about what should and should not have been included.
The Press Council notes that a senior member of staff of The Press met with Mr Fulton and his wife, responded in writing to his subsequent letter of complaint, and has offered him the opportunity to tell his story next year.
The complaint is not upheld. Some of the inaccuracies listed by Mr Fulton are in dispute; others are not expressed strongly enough to leave readers with a distorted view of the events on 10 April 1968.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.