JOSEPH POFF AGAINST THE TRIBUNE
Joseph Poff was a candidate for the Horizons Regional Council at the 2013 local body elections. He complained that the Tribune, a community weekly published by the Manawatu Standard, removed words from a statement he had been asked to supply for a supplement containing candidates' profiles. The complaint was not upheld. However, it illustrated that editors can be answerable for the handling of material arranged by advertising staff.
Mr Poff was invited to supply a statement of 150 words and a photo for the Tribune of September 18. He sought an assurance that his words would not be edited in view of his experience with letters to the editor. He was given the assurance by email from an advertising saleswoman who told him, "With your 150 words - whatever you email in will not be changed - it is cut and pasted in the Elections documents."
Mr Poff was an advocate for wind farms. His statement as submitted included the sentence, "I have witnessed how minority interests came to turn the PNCC (Palmerston North City Council) position from project initiator and partner to one of outright opponent of its own wind farm with the help of a new mayor....." The phrase, "with the help of a new mayor" did not appear in the published version. He had also written, "decisions must be based on factual evidence". The word "factual" was omitted in the version published.
The next day Mr Poff complained to the advertising saleswoman demanding to know who had edited his copy and suggesting the Tribune reprint his original statement in full the following week. He was not satisfied with her explanations and she referred him to a journalist, who in turn referred him to the editor of the Manawatu Standard. By then, Mr Poff was indicating his intention to complain to the Press Council. The editor told him an advertising supplement was not covered by the Press Council. Mr Poff replied, "Advertising implies one has paid for the privilege of publication, which I did not. Are you sure of your terms here?" He duly submitted his complaint to the Council.
The Jurisdiction Problem
The editor raised the question of jurisdiction with the Council before responding to the complaint. He said his editorial department had no input to, or oversight of, an advertising supplement. The material was "effectively a free ad" for Mr Poff.
The Council decided to accept the complaint. It was aware that the Advertising Complaints Authority would decline jurisdiction for this material. Contributed statements may be a free ad for election candidates but the candidates probably have not had the right to approve a proof before publication as they normally would for a paid advertisement. They are at the mercy of editorial decisions within the newspaper, whether those are made by advertising or editorial staff.
The Newspaper’s Response to the Complaint
The editor said it was regrettable that an advertising representative had told Mr Poff his submission would be "cut and pasted" into the supplement. Mr Poff should have been aware he did not have carte blanche to say whatever he liked about others. The words "with the help of a new mayor" were removed because they were potentially defamatory, the editor said. Furthermore they could have exposed the paper to a Press Council complaint if they had been printed without the mayor having a right of reply. While these risks were low, he considered the reference to a mayor of a different body from the one Mr Poff was standing for, made the comment of little relevance. The published statement conveyed Mr Poff's criticism of the council which the mayor leads. The editing did not alter his meaning and what was published accurately reflected his views. The word factual was removed because "factual evidence" is a tautology.
The Council agrees that the editing did not significantly change the complainant's statement, though none of the reasons given for removing the reference to the mayor would seem to warrant its removal. The fault in this case lies not in what was published but in the assurance given to Mr Poff that his statement would not be edited. No responsible editor would give such an assurance until the material had been seen. Even then, it normally would be subject to sub-editing where extraneous words, as in "factual evidence", would be removed and a line may be lost if space is tight.
The editor has done the right thing in response to the complaint, telling the newspaper's advertising staff that candidates providing statements in future must be advised that the normal editing process will apply. This ought to have been understood by the advertising staff. There was some sympathy on the Council for Mr Poff's treatment. He should not have been given the assurance he received but since the editing did not significantly alter or detract from his statement, the complaint was not upheld.
The Council notes that the supplement was not marked advertising, or advertising feature. Readers could have assumed that the content, other that the obviously boxed and authorised advertisements, was editorial copy. The Council recommends that all publications make the distinction clear to readers.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.