MANJU BHASKAR AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3073

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists Opinion
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading

Overview

1. Manju Bhaskar complains about an item published by the New Zealand Herald on May 14, 2021. She considers there was a breach of Media Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. On May 14, 2021, the New Zealand Herald published an item headedSimon Wilson: A bleak night in the Onehunga traffic dispute. The item had the sub-heading “Opinion” and was a report and comment on a meeting of the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki local board to consider the effects of a traffic trial that involved closing a number of local streets to through traffic. Residents of the area presented a petition and spoke about the “devastating” effect of the street closures.

4. The final paragraph of the article reads “McGlashan [a Board member] asked one complainant what she thought they should do to address congestion and the climate crisis? She didn’t have an answer. But we can’t do nothing.”

5. In response to this complaint, the New Zealand Herald changed the second sentence to read “She didn’t have an adequate answer.”

The Complaint

6. Ms Bhaskar says she was the “complainant” mentioned in the report and that it is inaccurate to say that she had no answer to Mr McGlashan’s question. On the contrary, she replied that blocking off streets only addressed the symptoms of the problem of single-occupancy vehicles and not the cause, which is inadequate and unaffordable public transport.

7. Commenting on Mr Wilson’s initial response to her complaint (that she had no proposals for moving forward), Ms Bhaskar points out that an answer does not necessarily involve proposals. Her answer to the question may not have been what Mr Wilson was hoping to hear, but it was an answer, and it clearly expressed her views.

8. Ms Bhaskar did not accept that the addition of the word “adequate” to the story was a sufficient remedy for her concerns, She asks whether the addition of a single word into the article, behind a paywall, two months after it was published, shows accountability for inaccurate reporting. She requires a clear admission that “what Simon Wilson said about me in the article was not the truth.”


The Response

9. Ms Bhaskar’s first approach was to Mr Wilson in an email on the day of publication. It seems Mr Wilson did not recognise the email as a complaint and responded briefly on the question of improving public transport. There was then a short exchange of emails in which Ms Bhaskar made it clear that she considered she had been inaccurately reported.

10. On May 28 Ms Bhaskar complained formally to the New Zealand Herald, and on June 15 received a response from Hamish Fletcher, Head of News – Reporters, saying that the item had been amended as noted above. He added “You may disagree with that claim but that is Simon’s view and the column is clearly marked as opinion.”

11. In a later response to the Media Council Mr Fletcher largely repeated his response to Ms Bhaskar. He did not consider that Mr Wilson needed to make a personal admission of inaccuracy or that any further action was needed. He also supplied a copy of a Facebook post made by Ms Bhaskar immediately after the meeting. The Media Council has noted the Facebook post but does not consider it relevant to the complaint.

The Decision

12. Media Council Principle 1 applies mainly to news reporting. A large part of the article is a straightforward report of the meeting, but it is interspersed with Mr Wilson’s comments. Towards the end of the article the balance shifts and there is more comment, especially in the last few paragraphs. It is relevant that at no point is Ms Bhaskar identified. If she had been, the analysis and outcome of the complaint could have been different.

13. The Media Council has concluded that this is essentially an opinion piece and accordingly it is more appropriate to consider Principles 4 and 5 which refer to the distinction between comment and fact, the need for material facts on which an opinion is based to be accurate, and the requirement to identify opinion as such. The item that is the subject of this complaint is clearly marked as “Opinion”. It sets out some of the facts on which the author is commenting, but the general tone is subjective, and the language is informal.

14. The question at the core of this complaint is whether the statement that Ms Bhaskar “didn’t have an answer” was Mr Wilson’s opinion or one of the facts on which he based that opinion. The initial wording of the statement was open to either interpretation. In the most literal sense, Ms Bhaskar had an answer in that she spoke in response to the question that had been asked. However the question was what she thought should be done to address congestion and the climate crisis, and it was clearly asked in the context of the discussion of the street closures. Her response was about the availability and affordability of public transport, which is important in considering the wider picture, but not entirely relevant to the immediate problem.

15. The Media Council considers that it was open to Mr Wilson to form the opinion that Ms Bhaskar did not have an answer to the problem under discussion, and that the correction made in response to this complaint makes it reasonably plain that this was his opinion. The original wording of the article is somewhat ambiguous, and the amended wording does not completely address Ms Bhaskar’s concerns and could have been more carefully drafted, but it is sufficient.

Determination

16. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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