LIAM NOLAN AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The Dominion Post arising from an article published on August 15, 2007.
Under the heading “Anger at ‘army shack’ homes” The Dominion Post reported the concerns of neighbours about a housing development in Reynolds Road, Havelock North. It said residents had organised a petition asking the Hastings District Council to prevent further such developments. The first paragraph of the report said “a developer plonked three small houses on tiny sections.”
The report said two of the houses sit on “minimum sized 350 square metre sections but the third one comes with only 275 square metres of land.” It quoted two residents as describing the houses as “flimsy, cheap looking ‘shacks’ that would sit well on an army base.” One resident was quoted as saying “the developer is getting roasted over this but the council approval allowed it to go ahead.”
The developer, Mr Liam Nolan, is quoted as saying that “people complained about large houses on small sections – so he had put small houses on small sections.” Mr Nolan was also quoted as saying the three houses, though not brand new, were architecturally designed and said critics should reserve judgment until he had finished the project.
The report was accompanied by a picture captioned “Cottage industry: neighbours have taken exception to three small houses which have been erected on tiny sections in Havelock North.”
The material for the report was based on a visit to the street by the reporter and on a conversation with Mr Nolan, supplemented by an e-mail from Mr Nolan containing his responses to a reporter from another newspaper on the subject of neighbours’ unhappiness at the project. The Dominion Post reporter also spoke to an official of the District Council.
Mr Nolan complained to the Press Council in a letter dated August 17. He cited breaches of Press Council principles on accuracy, corrections, confidentiality, comment and fact, advocacy, subterfuge, headlines and captions and photography.
On accuracy the complainant said the minimum plot size for the area was 300 square metres, not 350 as stated. The actual size of the plots was two of 360 sq metres and one of 350. They were thus larger than allowed.
The statement that the houses “comprised of three 44 square metre relocatable homes” was wrong. He complained “These false statements have materially affected the value of the homes.” He said that the statement attributed to him that the houses were not new was incorrect. He further complained that the statement one of the residents “lived a few doors down” was incorrect.
Mr Nolan said the material required a correction
On confidentiality Mr Nolan said the report had not taken reasonable steps to ensure its sources were well informed.
On comment and fact Mr Nolan objected to the description “plonked three small houses on tiny sections” The houses were properly installed on site. The description of the houses as tiny was emotive.
The lack of professional qualifications or experience by the reporter disqualified “advocacy” of a position on the issue.
On subterfuge Mr Nolan said that on approaching the reporter he said he did not wish to make any comment for publication but would provide written information and subsequently did so. He said a 10 to 15 minute chat on a “not for publication” basis without notes being taken was not appropriate and resulted in misquotation.
Mr Nolan said the heading was “sensationalism” and inaccurate and the caption was both inaccurate and misleading, implying it showed a completed project.
The Dominion Post responded directly to Mr Nolan by e-mail on August 21 including the reporter’s account of her meeting with Mr Nolan and a rebuttal of his complaints. On September 17 the newspaper formally responded to the Press Council.
On accuracy the editor stated that the council’s environmental manager had advised that the minimum section size for land sited near a public reserve was 300 square metres and that the developer had been required to obtain specific consent to create the third section at 275m square metres.
The description of the houses as relocatable was justified. They were pre-built and moved to the site. Describing one critic of the project as living “a few doors down” was entirely accurate.
Mr Nolan offered no evidence that the article “has materially affected the value of the homes.”
The newspaper stood by its report that Mr Nolan had told the reporters the houses were not brand new and it was evident they were weathered.
The opinions held by neighbours were accurately reported and Mr Nolan was well aware that some residents had concerns.
Mr Nolan’s views were accurately reported, including the statement the houses were architecturally designed and that further work was being undertaken on them, and he was given the opportunity to respond to the criticisms.
There was no need for a correction as there was nothing for the newspaper to correct.
On confidentiality the neighbours were perfectly qualified to provide well-informed comment as they lived in the same street and had seen the properties in question. There was no requirement for them to have professional qualification to express an opinion.
On comment and fact the newspaper accurately reported the fact of the neighbours’ concerns
Press Council principles grant media the right to take a stance but in this case this article had taken no such advocacy position but merely accurately reported the residents’ concerns.
There was no question of subterfuge as the reporter identified herself and at no time offered any acceptance of the position that Mr Nolan’s remarks were not for publication. The reporter disputed Mr Nolan’s recollection of the thrust of his remarks about small house on small sites and whether the homes were brand new.
Both the headline and captions were accurate and the caption did not imply the houses were complete and the reporting of Mr Nolan’s remarks that critics should reserve judgment made this perfectly clear.
On November 6 Mr Nolan responded. He maintained the reporter had incorrectly stated the minimum size was 350 square metres after being advised it was 300m. The land area of the third section was 360 square metres, not 275 as reported. He needed no specific consent for the smallest section. The section had easement for secondary access and the council district plan excluded access roads when calculating area.
The use of the term relocatable was wrong for these homes, which were intended to be permanent but were merely built off-site. Relocatable homes were cheaper than the homes in question and this affected their value.
The description of the neighbour as living “a few doors down” was stretching the definition of “a few doors down” and he did not live in close proximity,
Mr Nolan denied telling the reporter the houses were not brand new. There was some weather staining.
Mr Nolan said he had not been given an opportunity to respond to criticism, as he had not been told what the concerns of the interviewees were.
He did not accept that the neighbours were qualified to comment on the structural stability of half completed houses
On the issue of comment Mr Nolan said the description of the three houses being “plonked” on “tiny sections” was demeaning and the content of the report was advocacy.
In support of the complaint on subterfuge Mr Nolan said he did expressly state he would only provide material for publication in writing.
He said that on the matter of his stating the houses were not new his recollection was quite clear and he made no such statement.
Mr Nolan repeated his objection to the use of the term “tiny sections” in the caption and said the newspaper should have identified the subject of the picture as a building site.
In a further response The Dominion Post supplied an application for building consent lodged with the Hastings District Council. This stated the lots were of 360 square metres, 350 square metres and 276 square metres. As the properties were near a public space they could be permitted with two sites “which easily meet density requirements” and “one undersized site.” The application describes the dwellings as “small flat roofed houses.” The newspaper stood by the accuracy of its story.
The substance of the report is the dissatisfaction of the neighbours with the council policy under which Mr Nolan’s project has proceeded and the nature of the houses themselves. It is clear that Mr Nolan is aware of these concerns as the provision of his response to a previous reporter’s inquiry indicates.
There is dispute over the section size, with the standard minimum size being affected by proximity to public space and a difference about the nature of area calculations.
But it is doubtful if this distinction is such as to affect the burden of the report or is evidence of, as the Press Council principle states, any attempt “to deliberately mislead or misinform readers”. There is no suggestion that Mr Nolan is in breach of any size requirements and the story explicitly quotes a council official as saying the development was within the rules of the district plan. Mr Nolan does not dispute the suggestion that the sections and houses are small and in his response indicates the median section size in Reynolds Road is 759 square metres although some are cross leased.
Neighbours are entitled to express their opinions of the appearance of houses and Mr Nolan’s statements that they were architecturally designed and that decks, sunshades, fence and driveways were to be added are contained in the report.
There is a difference in the recollection of the reporter and Mr Nolan on the matters of his saying the houses were not brand new and whether he had said he had put small houses on small sections. The Council is not in a position to rule on these matters but they do not affect the main burden of the complaint.
The Council is also not in a position to judge whether or not Mr Nolan expressly stated that his views were not for publication and the Council has had previous occasion to remark on the need for this position to be clear to both parties. However Mr Nolan’s suggestion that he was not able to respond adequately because he did not know the nature of the views of the interviewees lacks substance, given that he subsequently provided The Dominion Post with a written response to previous criticisms.
The report is essentially a report of the feeling of some neighbours towards the development. There is no indication they were inaccurately reported. Mr Nolan’s defence of his project is adequately covered. There is no suggestion of subterfuge being used to obtain the story. The heading accurately reflects the content of the report. The caption is not inaccurate and the picture itself clearly shows that work is in progress on the site.
Mr Nolan is understandably unhappy with the tenor of the neighbours’ remarks but they are entitled to make them and The Dominion Post has not behaved improperly in reporting them.
Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.