Case Number: 3483

Council Meeting: February 2024

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Defamation/Damaging To Reputation


  1. The Wairarapa Times-Age (Times-Age) published two articles in October 2023 about a Greytown resident Derek Anderton and his interactions with the South Wairarapa District Council (SWDC). Karon Ashforth, the General Manager of Finance at SWDC at the time, complains about the use of her image and reference to her resignation in these articles. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

  1. The first article was published online on 26 October and headlined Angry ratepayer claims council blocked emails. It included an image above the headline of Derek Anderton addressing the SWDC finance committee meeting and Karon Ashforth attending the same meeting via zoom with her name and title displayed in the caption. The Times-Age removed these images after Ms Ashforth's initial complaint.  
  2. The second article was published on 31 October and headlined SWDC denies blocking emails to councillors. The story quotes Mr Anderton and contained an image of an email to Mr Anderton, with the subject heading “Expired: FW: resignation of GM Finance”.  The Times-Age also removed this image after Ms Ashforth's initial complaint.

The Complaint

  1. Ms Ashforth complains that the articles repeat statements from Derek Anderton that question the competence of the management of the SWDC’s finances. She feels the article gives the perception that there is substance and seriousness to Anderton’s claims. Including her image in this article links her to these issues and damages her personal reputation. 
  2. As an officer of the SWDC, she feels that the matters in question should be addressed by councillors or the Acting Chief Executive, not her. Further, she was not offered the opportunity to comment on the allegations in the article. 
  3. The second image is a screenshot of a blocked email about her resignation. Ms Ashforth complains that blocking emails is not something she is responsible for and her resignation is a personal matter. 
  4. She wants a public apology as she feels that WTA has attempted to publicly discredit her professional reputation.

The Response

  1. The Times-Age responds that the meeting concerned was public and available on Zoom. The photograph used was a screen shot. It was correctly captioned and clearly shows the Zoom logo. The article details questions asked regarding the council’s finance management and administration.
  2. The Times-Age states that the October 31 article follows up issues raised at the October 26 public council meeting. The photograph used in this article was supplied to WTA by Derek Anderton, a SWDC ratepayer. It is a screen shot from Mr Anderton’s computer and is directly related to his allegations that his emails were being blocked.
  3. The Times-Age stands by the accuracy and fairness of the articles. It notes that both articles were firstly processed by Local Democracy Reporting (LDR) [funded through NZ On Air], as are all LDR articles in the Times-Age.
  4. However, on receiving a complaint from Ms Ashforth, that day the Times-Age removed the photos attached to these two articles from its website and continued a dialogue with SWDC to improve communications between the two organisations.

The Discussion

  1. The complaint covers several Media Council Principles.  Each will be discussed here.  Principle (6) Headlines and Captions was included by Ms Ashforth in her submission.  This principle states that all headings, sub-headings, and captions accurately and fairly convey the substance or key element of the report they are designed to cover.  For both articles, the headings and captions below the images relate directly to the content. 
  2. Ms Ashforth also includes Principle (2) Privacy.  This principle allows for privacy of person, space, and personal information, where it does not interfere with the publication of significant matters of public record or public interest. 
  3. As the financial performance of a local council is no doubt of significant interest to readers and the first image was captured at a public meeting at which Ms Ashforth was expected to attend in her capacity as a council officer, the Wairarapa Times-Age cannot be seen to have breached her privacy.  Senior managers of a council are not exempt from public questioning. Indeed, it could be seen as part of the job. Further, some of what was being questioned by the ratepayer was financial management and administration processes, the area that Ms Ashforth managed. 
  4. The image used was one example of a number of photographs of council officers or elected representatives which could have been referred to, and it does not include any personal details.  Her position  was likely public knowledge and there was no breach of the Privacy principle.
  5. Principle (4) Comment and Fact is also cited.  Reviewing the articles, the Times-Age has been careful to ensure the views of Derek Anderton and the Acting Council Chief Executive are clearly identified as quotes and attributable comments. 
  6. The final principle included in the complaint is Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance that states in articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. 
  7. The South Wairarapa District Council was given the opportunity to comment on the policy about blocking ratepayers’ emails in the second article and some of those comments were reported.  Balance was achieved across the two articles. 
  8. While no specific comment about Derek Anderton’s financial allegations was included in the first story, without any information to the contrary, the Media Council must assume that this is a fair and accurate account of the meeting.  The same can be said for the references to emails being blocked.  That ratepayers may be blocked from communicating with the council will also be of public interest.
  9. Balance can be seen to have been achieved through the Mayor’s response to Mr Anderton’s allegations (seeking more information about the South Wairarapa District Council annual plan). Financial management at the SWDC will likely be of ongoing interest and reporting. 
  10. Decision: The complaint is not upheld

Council members considering the complaint were Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Alison Thom, Ben France-Hudson, Clio Francis, Hank Schouten, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Rosemary Barraclough, Richard Pamatatau, Scott Inglis and Tim Watkin.


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