KEITH MELVILLE AGAINST THE WHAKATANE BEACON

Case Number: 580

Council Meeting: JULY 1995V

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NULL

A complaint by the chief reporter of the Whakatane Beacon against his own newspaper has been dismissed by the New Zealand Press Council.

The complaint centred on an article published in the newspaper on 24 April in which Mr Bill Tait, chairman of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council is quoted as criticising some sections of the media -- plainly, the Beacon -- for its coverage of a court case.

Mr Keith Melville, the chief reporter and reporter of the court proceedings, contends the article contained statements that were misleading, inaccurate, and contained an element of unfairness.

The issue that provoked the complaint relates to judicial review proceedings heard in the High Court at Rotorua before Justice Morris. He was hearing an application by some rural ratepayers to have their rates impost declared invalid.

A member of the regional council staff was said by Justice Morris during proceedings to have "knackered" a report presented to the council by a rating consultant. This was rebutted by the officer involved. Later, the judge withdrew his comments. All this was reported by the Beacon.

Other rebuttal from the rating consultant was referred to in passing in the Beacon article which reported Mr Justice Morris's retraction of his "knackered" comments.

Later Mr Tait was publicly critical of media reporting of the case, saying the allegation of document-tampering could have been cleared up earlier had "all the evidence presented to the judge" been reported.

Mr Melville disputed that, said balancing comment had been reported, and went on to say that to report Mr Tait's claim without his (Mr Melville's) suggested response to it, undermined his (Mr Melville's) credibility.

The editor of the Whakatane Beacon Mr Mike Allen refused to carry Mr Melville's suggested footnote, allowing Mr Tait to have his say without qualification. He also advised the Press Council of ongoing unhappiness by the regional council, and himself, about Mr Melville's reporting of council affairs.

This may be the first time the Press Council has had to address a complaint of this sort, and it regrets the parties couldn't sort it out within the office. However, having decided to accept the complaint, the Press Council cannot uphold it.

It accepts that in reporting court cases, like reporting any other issue, a newspaper must, of necessity, be selective. In doing so, however, it has a duty to provide balanced coverage over the course of a hearing.

When an editor gets a complaint about a reporter or an article, he or she must decide whether to stand by the report, correct it, or report the criticism without comment. In this case, Mr Allen decided, having regard to the circumstances, that Mr Tait's comments -- amended in one respect for accuracy -- should be reported without comment from the newspaper.

The Council reaffirms that the editor of a publication is the final arbiter of what appears in his or her publication and believes that editorial discretion and judgment were properly exercised in this case.