MARK HOTCHIN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDMark Hotchin complains that the New Zealand Herald breached two of the Press Council principles in an article published on March 20, 2013. He says the article is inaccurate (Principle 1) and its headline does not accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report (Principle 5).
The Press Council does not uphold Mr Hotchin’s complaint
On March 20, 2013 the New Zealand Herald published an article under the heading Hotchin’s island house for sale. It was accompanied by a photograph of the property and a photograph of Mr Hotchin. While the article mentioned that Mr Hotchin is the beneficiary of a trust that owns the property in question, and that the director of the trustee company had been involved in discussions about the sale, it clearly said that Mr Hotchin intended to sell the property. He was reported as having had discussions with the real estate agent about the sale, and also that “he’ll look at any serious offers.” There was no mention of any beneficiaries of the trust other than Mr Hotchin.
In fact Mr Hotchin is not the only beneficiary of the trust and was not actively involved in the sale of the property.
The article was published in print and online.
Tompkins Wake Lawyers, on behalf of Mr Hotchin, immediately complained to the Herald about the article. The complaint was accepted, and a correction to the print article was published the following day. A revised article was published online.
The correction to the print article says that the Herald had published a story headed Hotchin island house for sale which reported the fact that a property on Waiheke Island owned by a trustee company of which Mr Hotchin is a beneficiary was for sale. It continued “Mr Hotchin has asked that we make it clear that the property is owned by a trust, not by Hotchin; that he is not the only beneficiary of the trust; and that all decisions concerning the sale and marketing of the property are being made exclusively by the trustee and not by Mr Hotchin.”
The revised online article made it clear that comments that had been attributed to Mr Hotchin were in fact made by the director of the trustee company. At the end of the article was a paragraph headed “Correction” in similar terms to the correction published in print, but without any mention of a headline. The headline to the revised online article was Trust selling home linked to Hotchin.
On 12 April 2013, Tompkins Wake lodged a complaint with the Press Council.
Mr Hotchin complains about the inaccuracy of four specific sentences or phrases in the original article, all of which indicate either that he is the owner of the property in question or that he is the sole beneficiary of the trust. He also complains that the article includes references to himself when they should have been references to Tony Thomas, the director of the trustee company. In commenting on the Herald’s response to the complaint, he says he does not accept the reporter made a genuine mistake in this respect.
He is of the view that the article was deliberately written to convey the inaccurate impression that he was selling his own asset for his own benefit at a time when his property was frozen by a court order and that there is therefore an implication of wrongdoing.
He also says the headline Hotchin’s island house for sale did not accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report as he does not own the property.
The complaint letter concludes by saying that the amendments made by the Herald were appropriate and adequate to correct the inaccuracies. The complaint is that the original reporting was inaccurate and unfair.
In commenting on the Herald’s response to the complaint, Mr Hotchin generally does not accept the explanations offered.
The New Zealand Herald Response
The Herald is of the view that its correction was an adequate remedy for Mr Hotchin’s complaint.
It explains that its reporter misunderstood remarks made by the real estate agent during an interview. The reporter understood that the “he” selling the property was Mr Hotchin when the agent was referring to Mr Thomas. It was a genuine and unfortunate error, but was very quickly remedied.
With regard to other elements of the complaint, the Herald submits
• The article was not written to convey the inaccurate impression that Mr Hotchin was selling his own asset for his own benefit. It publishes regular stories about the sale of prominent or expensive homes, and there is particular interest in the relevant property as it has been on and off the market for many years and is considered one of the country’s most expensive properties.
• There was no intention to imply that Mr Hotchin was breaching the court-imposed restrictions. The story clearly noted there was no freeze on the property.
• The headline on the first story was Hotchin’s island house for sale, corrected in the second edition to Hotchin island house for sale. The link to Mr Hotchin is justifiable as he used the house as a holiday home and the neighbours know it by that name.
• It was accurately reported that the house was owned by a trustee company. The original report said that Mr Hotchin was the beneficiary of the trust, corrected later to “a beneficiary”.
1. Principle 1 - Accuracy
There is no doubt that the original article was inaccurate and that the real estate agent was incorrectly reported as referring to Mr Hotchin when he was actually referring to the director of the trustee company. The inaccuracy gave the impression that Mr Hotchin was closely involved in the sale process when it seems that he had merely been consulted over it. Coupled with the description of Mr Hotchin as “the” rather than “a” beneficiary of the trust, the implication was that Mr Hotchin was selling the property for his own benefit.
It was, however, clearly stated that the property was not subject to any “freeze” and there was nothing to suggest that it was being sold in contravention of any legally imposed restriction.
The Herald submits that the inaccuracy was the result of a mistake while Mr Hotchin is convinced that there was a deliberate misrepresentation. It is not the function of the Press Council to determine the reasons for an established inaccuracy.
The article was corrected online as soon as the inaccuracy was drawn to the attention of the Herald, and a print correction was published in the newspaper on the following day. In both cases it was made clear that the director of the trustee company was the main actor in the sale. Mr Hotchin is mentioned only as a beneficiary of the trust and as having been consulted about the sale.
The correction adequately addresses the complaint of inaccuracy and indeed Mr Hotchin accepts that this is the case.
2. Principle 5 - Headline
Principle 5 requires that headlines should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. Given that the report stated that Mr Hotchin was “the beneficiary of the trustee company that owns the property”, the headline in question accurately conveyed a key element of the report, but that key element was itself inaccurate. Mr Hotchin was not “the” beneficiary but a beneficiary. It therefore appears that the complaint of a breach of principle 5 is actually a complaint that the headline, as well as the substance of the article, was inaccurate and a breach of principle 1.
The original headline reinforced the implication that Mr Hotchin was selling the property for his own benefit, while the substituted headline on the online article Trust selling home linked to Hotchin is accurate and appears to have been acceptable to Mr Hotchin.
It is noted that the correction that appeared in the March 21 print edition is inaccurate in that it reads “In yesterday’s Herald we published a story headed Hotchin island house for sale which reported . . . .” The original story was in fact headed Hotchin’s island house for sale. The difference is minor, but the original headline implied more clearly that Mr Hotchin owned the house.
All parties accept that the original article and its headline were inaccurate and thus in breach of principle 1. However the Herald made an immediate correction which Mr Hotchin accepts as appropriate and adequate to correct the inaccuracies.
In the circumstances the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan and Chris Darlow took no part in the consideration of this complaint.