MARK WILLIAMS AGAINST CHB MAILMark Williams, a candidate for the Aramoana ward in the Central Hawke’s Bay local body elections, complained about the publication of a letter to the editor of the CHB Mail, a weekly newspaper, on September 28 2010. The abridged letter was published without its author being named, but the author’s name and address had been supplied to the paper. Mr Williams, said the letter published misleading information about him, at a sensitive time in a weekly newspaper close to the October 7 local body elections. Mr Williams wanted the CHB Mail to accept wrongdoing and apologise. The complaint is upheld.
The anonymous letter writer referred to two candidates standing for the Aramoana ward saying they had been closely associated with attempts to get ratepayers to pay for the Aramoana Woolshed project, naming the candidates as ex-councillor Williams and another person. The writer noted that in 2007 the public of CHB showed they did not want their money going into that purchase “and to have these people on the council would worry me.” The writer also said that sitting members on the council were doing a good job and should be returned.
On the day of publication, Mr Williams wrote to the editor of the CHB Mail in Waipukurau saying he was appalled that at such a sensitive time in the local body elections the newspaper had published the letter and kept the writer anonymous. “The inference that I want to revisit the Woolshed project is so far from the truth that it is laughable.” With voting due to close in less than two weeks “this can only be extremely damaging to my attempt to once again serve the people of CHB. I will have the right of reply but a whole week will have gone by before it will be published.”
Mr Williams handed his letter of complaint to the CHB Mail in person. It was forwarded to the editor of Hawke’s Bay Today, Anthony Phillips, who had overall responsibility for the CHB Mail.
The Newspaper’s Response
Mr Phillips said the CHB Mail offered Mr Williams the standard right of reply, but he initially rejected it. Hawke’s Bay Newspapers had also offered him the opportunity to have a letter published in the daily Hawke’s Bay Today so he would not have to wait a week till the CHB Mail’s next publishing date. Mr Williams rejected this. (Later, Mr Williams agreed to send a right of reply to the CHB Mail, and it appeared on October 5.)
Mr Phillips said the CHB Mail had had a policy of publishing letters “with names and addresses withheld on request”. Hawke’s Bay Newspapers would be prepared to review this policy on advice from the Press Council.
Initial Interaction with the Press Council
The Press Council was kept informed of these developments from the outset by both parties, because of the imminence of the local body elections and the possible need for a fast-track ruling. In his initial letter to the Press Council (sent on the day he complained to the newspaper) Mr Williams was concerned that the CHB Mail’s weekly publication date would reduce the impact of his right of reply. The damage to his reputation and his potential loss of votes was a “very real worry” in what would be a tightly contested race. “I believe at this time in the elections if letter writers are not prepared to sign their names then any paper that prints said letters is letting the community down big time.”
In correspondence with Mr Williams, the Press Council said a decision on his complaint could not be released in time for publication in the CHB Mail’s October 5 edition. (The local body elections were on October 7, after a postal ballot). The Press Council suggested Mr Williams accept the newspaper’s offer of publishing a right of reply. It was published on October 5.
The CHB Mail’s chief reporter, in email traffic with Hawke’s Bay Today editor Antony Phillips, said that two of Mr Williams’ supporters had also written letters to the editor. A separate man also contacted the chief reporter complaining of harassment, as he was suspected of writing the original letter. He did not write it. The chief reporter also received five “unpleasant” calls from people demanding the author’s name. She had not published the name as the person did not want it divulged. Later the author called again, to ensure she would not divulge it to Mr Williams or his supporters.
Discussion and Decision
The Council’s Statement of Principles says that the selection and treatment of letters to the editor for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest in the correspondents’ views. Thus the Press Council is usually wary of complaints concerning publication (or non-publication) of such letters.
However, the issue of identifying the letter writer, particularly in time and issue-sensitive cases such as this, call for a Press Council ruling.
In previous adjudications the Press Council has commented on different issues concerning anonymous letters to the editor:
Letters published with a pseudonym are no longer appropriate in almost every case in modern journalism. A publication which is available for public subscription does a disservice to its readers and the general principle of robust editorial debate by concealing letter writers’ names.
In a small community particularly, the privileged position held by publications, especially those appearing weekly at a crucial time in a postal ballot for local body elections, means it is vital to identify those who express views which may influence the outcome.
The vast majority of newspapers now require correspondents to demonstrate the courage of their convictions by publishing their names. That may from time to time inhibit people from expressing their views. However, that is better than enabling publication of allegedly damaging misinformation anonymously, in a time critical period.
The Press Council must take Mr Williams’ word that the inferences published about him were far from the truth and politically damaging at a crucial time in the local body election. It does not know if the letter influenced the election result, though it notes that Mr Williams was elected.
Hawke’s Bay Today offered Mr Williams the chance of expressing a reply in its daily publication, instead of waiting for the CHB Mail’s next publication on October 5. Mr Williams declined the offer, for his own reasons, and later had his right of reply published in the CHB Mail on October 5.
Hawke’s Bay Newspapers has also offered to amend the CHB Mail’s policy of publishing letters with names and addresses withheld on request. The Press Council is inclined to agree.
The complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.