KIRSTYN BARNETT AGAINST THE KAIAPOI ADVOCATEThe New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint against The Kaiapoi Advocate arising from an article published on 4 April 2008.
Under the heading “Councillors look west” and under a photograph captioned “Status quo: Councillors have voted to reject a bypass to the east of Woodend’ was a report of a Waimakariri Council decision to evaluate a bypass route to the west of the town of Woodend.
The report outlined a council decision to seek an independent assessment of a western route bypassing the North Canterbury township of Woodend. It stated that one councillor dissented from the decision, that there was a staff recommendation to adopt a modified eastern route and quoted deputy mayor Elaine Cole’s concerns about an eastern route including an outline of what, in her view, would be the negative impact of an eastern bypass. Also reported were comments by Councillor Sandra Stewart regarding an offer from Pegasus developers to provide an alternative route to the west of the town and Councillor Stewart’s concerns about Transit New Zealand’s future plans.
By email to the publisher of The Kaiapoi Advocate Michael de Hamel on April 15 Kirstyn Barnett complained about inaccurate and unbalanced reporting in the article. She complained it was factually incorrect to state that the council had rejected an eastern bypass. She had sought and received confirmation from the council executives that bypass options were still being evaluated. The council had not made a final decision to accept or reject any route, and an eastern option was still on the table.
She complained the article lacked comment from community members other than the two councillors quoted. She requested a published clarification and for majority community views to be canvassed and reported upon as well as some comments from those who favoured other options.
Following a response from the publisher she complained to the Press Council on April 19 that:
i. the caption was inaccurate
ii. the article lacked balance and used emotive language
iii. the information contained in the article had been supplied by one councillor only and that this councillor was a reporter and saleswoman for the newspaper.
On April 16 Mr de Hamel replied by email apologizing for mistakenly sending Ms Barnett an email intended for Sandra Stewart who works for the newspaper complained of and who is also the Councillor Stewart quoted in the story complained of by Ms Barnett.
He suggested to Ms Barnett that her complaint could be treated as a Letter to the Editor, he disagreed that contrary opinions should have been canvassed for the article and expressed a view that both possible bypass routes had severe problems. He suggested he might publish her letter. He also suggested that if she had a complaint, she take it up with the Press Council.
Ms. Barnett’s subsequent complaint to the Press Council expanded on her point that the information for the article was “largely supplied by Councillor Sandra Stewart”. Ms Barnett argued that Sandra Stewart was the only Kaiapoi Advocate reporter in the Council Chambers at the time of the debate and that the minutes of the meeting were not released until after the publication of the 4 April edition.
She asks that the Press Council clarify the issue of ethics relating to the dual role of an elected council member who is also acting as a reporter on council decisions.
Mr de Hamel does not address this question of a potential conflict nor does he attribute authorship of the article. His response also overlooks answering the inaccuracy in the caption. He argues that the issue “boils down to whether my offer to publish Ms Barnett’s original late night (and possibly defamatory) email as a letter to the editor was reasonable given the nature of her complaint and “the language in which it was expressed.”
The Press Council finds that Ms Barnett’s original email was clearly a complaint, contained no potentially defamatory material and was reasonable in tone. It correctly identified that the caption for the photograph was incorrect as the council had not voted to reject a by-pass to the East. The complaint of inaccuracy is upheld in regards to the caption.
The Press Council is surprised that the editor in his reply to Ms Barnett suggested her complaint was defamatory. On one interpretation this could be taken as a threat.
The complaint that the article uses emotive language rather than factual detail to advocate for a particular position is not upheld. The report is poorly written and confusing. However, the language is not emotive.
The question of balance is more difficult for the Press Council to address, since it has not been made clear whether Councillor Stewart was the author, and neither was it clear if the quoted comments came from the council meeting itself. The Press Council would have concerns if the article was substantially Councillor Stewart interviewing herself for an article but, in the absence of confirmation, is not able to rule on this.
The fourth aspect of Ms Barnett’s complaint relates to a potential conflict of interest. If the article was written by Councillor Stewart, and this question remains unanswered by the newspaper editor, it is necessary for Councillor Stewart to be identified as both a participant in the council decision and a reporter on it. Readers have a right to know if a reporter is involved in the substance of a report. In this case, as a council member, Councillor Stewart would have had to vote on the issue of the western bypass feasibility study. Readers were entitled to know that and failing to advise them is an ethical breach.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Denis McLean.