The Press Council has not upheld, by a majority, a complaint from Kevin Meates against The Press. Mr Meates objected that the abridged form in which a letter he wrote to the editor was published, on 1 December 2007, was unfair.

The letter Mr Meates submitted for publication was two paragraphs long and may be quoted in full:

All Black Coach
The very strong reason to reappoint Graham Henry is that he has now participated in a World Rugby Cup as coach and knows the pressures, the need for a cool head and how to make decisions under pressure. That is experience beyond a price.
It was precisely because they had the same experience playing in the previous World Cup, that Aaron Mauger should have started and Reuben Thorne should have been on the bench against France.

Only the first paragraph was published in the In a few words section of the Letters to the Editor. Mr Meates complained that the omission of the second paragraph substantially changed the meaning of his letter. The newspaper responded that the letter had made two largely separate points, one of which had been printed; it was a straightforward abridgement.

In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Meates explained that he had intended the first paragraph of his letter to summarise the argument in support of the reappointment of the incumbent All Black coach and the second paragraph to undermine that argument by pointing out that the same coach had not fielded experienced players when needed at the World Cup. He argued that it was unfair to quote the first paragraph without the context of the second.

Notwithstanding Mr Meates’ intentions, the letter was ambiguous. It might equally be read as one paragraph expressing support for reappointment of the incumbent All Black coach because of his experience and a second, somewhat oblique paragraph about what might have been in the World Cup quarterfinal. On that reading, the two paragraphs are not obviously and necessarily interdependent and, accordingly, the abridgement was straightforward and not unfair.

The Press Council will rarely interfere with the selection and treatment of letters written to the editor for publication (Principle 12). In this case, the point that Mr Meates sought to make, and consequently the interdependence of the two paragraphs, was not readily apparent on the face of the letter. The complaint of unfairness is not upheld.

As soon as Mr Meates complained to the editor, pointing out the misunderstanding, the newspaper could have had the grace to print a short correction or acknowledgement in the Letters section. However, it was not compelled to do so.

Two members of the Press Council would have upheld the complaint. In their view the letter was critical of the reappointment of Mr Henry. It was saying that if Mr Henry was reappointed for his experience, it was ironic that that experience had not resulted in two experienced players being in the 22 for the French match.

While the meaning of the letter may not have been obvious to all, and therefore The Press’s abbreviation in itself may not be a ground for upholding the complaint, the position changed when The Press was advised by Mr Meates of his intention. The Press should have then promptly published a correction.

It left on record a statement from Mr Meates which did not express his view. It was no answer, and in the members’ view disingenuous, to say that the publication did not change the meaning of the first paragraph, when publishing only that one paragraph had the effect of completely reversing the implication in Mr Meates’ letter when read in its entirety. The members would have upheld on failure to correct.

Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.

Council members dissenting were Barry Paterson and Keith Lees.


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