MARTIN ROBERTSON AGAINST MAHURANGI MATTERS
Case Number: 3167
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2021
Verdict: Not Upheld
Balance, Lack Of
1. This complaint, concerning an article in Mahurangi Matters about the closing of a boatyard, alleges an inaccurate and unbalanced coverage of a long-running dispute between brothers. The Media Council finds that the article was not about the dispute, save as part of the background to the closure of a boatyard, and the focus is on the effects of such a closure on the Mahurangi community. The complaint is not upheld.
2. On 2 August 2021, the Mahurangi newspaper, Mahurangi Matters published an article titled “Brothers’ Dispute Threatens Boatyard”.
3. The article showed four pictures of the boatyard, which is on the Mahurangi river, including workers working within it. It stated in the first sentence that one of Warkworth’s major boatbuilders risked closure after a family dispute “that has ended in a court order to sell the land where the business is based”. It explained that this arises from an interim ruling in the High Court, upheld in the Court of Appeal. The ruling related to a dispute between two brothers, Conrad and Martin Robertson, Martin Robertson being the complainant.
4. The article gave a short history of the situation that led to the court orders. Ownership of the land had been shared between the two brothers. Conrad Robertson bought Martin Robertson out of the boat building business 26 years earlier. The Robertson boat business, run by Conrad, had stayed on the land, leasing the land from Conrad and Martin as lessors. The lease had expired in December 2007 (wrongly stated in the original article as December 2017). The two brothers had since failed to agree to new terms.
5. The article stated that Conrad wished to expand and modernise the boat business, whereas Martin wished to redevelop the property for housing. They were unable to agree. Conrad applied to the High Court to have the land partitioned, to allow him to buy part of the land. The Court had however ordered that the land be sold by auction, finding that Conrad and Martin were unlikely to agree on a partition proposal. The appeal to the Court of Appeal by Conrad failed.
6. The land was to be sold by auction within weeks, and Conrad said this meant he faced losing the business of 40 years. Conrad is quoted as commenting on how he cannot relocate in the area. Losing the business would mean a loss of 20 jobs for various workers. There is some description of the nature of the business and it representing a lot of hard work and effort and following that Conrad says “the thought of losing it does not seem right to me”.
7. A member of a local committee that has a boat that is serviced by the boatyard is quoted as saying that if the boatyard closes down, it will have a hugely detrimental impact on Warkworth’s marine industry. The Deputy Chair of the Warkworth Riverbank Enhancement Group says that there is a potential upside in the possible completion of a walkway along the river which would cross the Robertson land. He said he would be keen to talk to a new owner if the property changes hands.
8. The complaint was initially made by Martin Robertson’s lawyer on his behalf. He asserts that the article is inaccurate, unbalanced, and presents a one-sided view of a long-running dispute. He is critical of there being no approach to his client while his client’s brother was interviewed and quoted extensively.
9. He points to the inaccurate date of the expiry of the lease, and also makes the point that the matter “is in front of the court”, stating that the reporter had not bothered to obtain copies of the court judgments. He has alleged that readers had been misinformed, and that there was no voice for the opposition view. He relies on a comment that was posted later about the article saying that it was implied that the court made the wrong decision.
10. Mr Robertson later complained that there was substantial comment from one party without any approach to himself, the other party.
11. The General Manager of the company that owns Mahurangi Matters responded. The lease expiry date error was acknowledged, and it was stated that it has been corrected. It was observed that the error was not ‘fundamental’.
12. It was not accepted that there had been a breach of any Media Council guideline, or that any apology was warranted. It was accepted that it “might have been preferable” to seek comment from the other brother. However, the article was about the future of the boatyard and what its closure meant to Warkworth. It was not about the rights and wrongs of the dispute between the brothers.
13. The first part of the article set out the background which led to the court order of sale. The main part of the article deals with the effects of that sale.
14. In summary the article says:
- Two brothers own a property on the Mahurangi river;
- One brother runs a boat building and repair business on the property;
- They have different priorities one brother wanting to continue the boat yard and the other wishing to develop the land;
- They reached an impasse as to how to resolve this;
- They went to the High Court which ordered sale of all the land;
- That judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal;
- The sale will mean the end of the business and the loss of the jobs and service it provided;
- The closure of the business is opposed and in the light of all the hard work and effort it represents losing it “does not seem right” to the brother who lost;
- There is real concern the community about the closure;
- Although there is a possible advantage for the community in that the land by the river could be used for a walkway.
15. There are no inaccuracies in the article apart from the 2017 date. The implied criticism in the lawyer’s letter that the Court decisions had not been read and were inaccurately described, is unjustified. The judgments are addressed in a neutral way. There is no criticism or indeed commentary on the judgments. There is no criticism personal to the brother who wishes to develop the land. The statement about it not seeming “right”, is in the context of it not being right that all the work in building up the business would be lost. That was a feeling that could have been experienced by anyone who lost the lease of a long-term successful business, whatever the reason for closure. It does not mean the closure itself was illegal or unfair.
16. It would have been preferable for a comment to have been sought from the complainant, to balance the overall sad and regretful mood of the article at the prospective closing. However, as the article is not on an objective reading critical of the complainant, we do not see that as essential.
17. We do not agree with the complainant’s lawyers claim that this was a one-sided view of the long-running dispute between the
brothers. The dispute is not the subject of the article. No details of the dispute are discussed. The dispute is part of
the background, and is presented as such, and no views are given about the merits of the parties’ positions in the Court case, or the
merits of the decisions.
18. We note the statement in the solicitor's letter of 13 September 2021 in support of the allegation the article was 'one-sided' that there was a comment of a reader of the article to the newspaper, who said that the judge was 'having a bad day'. If the purpose of this was to suggest that the article had implied that the judge had a bad day when writing the decision, that implication is not warranted as the article makes no criticism of the High Court judgment and indeed does not engage with the reasoning. It observes correctly that the judgment was upheld on appeal.
19. We do not agree with the lawyer’s implied criticism of the article for commenting on an extant court case. The High Court’s decision on partition, while interim, was final in ordering a sale rather than partition, the matter that was the subject of the article. The article only commented on that aspect of the decision. The matter discussed had been determined, had been appealed to the Court of Appeal, and that determination had been upheld by that court. Therefore, the principle known as the ‘sub-judice’ rule prohibiting discussion of matters before the courts that are still to be finally determined did not apply.
20. It is also relevant that Martin Robertson was offered the opportunity to publish a statement answering the article in Mahurangi Matters but has not taken up the offer.
21. The mistaken reference to 2017 rather than 2007 was unfortunate but was promptly fixed. We agree with the General Manager that this was not a fundamental error. Given the prompt fix it does not warrant the upholding of the complaint.
21. The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.