Case Number: 581

Council Meeting: JULY 1995

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion

The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Chancellor and Council of Massey University against the Wellington morning newspaper the Dominion.

On March 23, the newspaper published a report that a Canadian physicist, Jack MacDonald was believed to have been appointed as the University's new vice-chancellor.

In fact, although it had made no public statement on its preference, the university was then completing preparations to name Dr James McWha, chief executive of HortResearch, to the post, an appointment subsequently confirmed.

Joined by his council, the chancellor, Mr J.H.Williams, QC, complained that the report naming Professor MacDonald had been "outrageous," irresponsible and unverified, causing great embarrassment and inconvenience to university authorities and other parties concerned. He had rejected an offer by the newspaper on April 3 to publish a correction and apology, believing that that would merely prolong an already unfortunate matter.

In correspondence with the chancellor, the editor of the Dominion apologised to the university and to the two academics concerned. He noted that the newspaper had reported the eventual formal announcement at length. Its original information had come from several reputable sources, appeared authoritative and convinced the reporter that it was genuine. A standing instruction to staff was that errors should be corrected; that those responsible for publishing the March 26 article had not recalled the earlier report on March 23 was regretted.

The newspaper subsequently told the Press Council that it had used information received from university sources who were either mistaken or, as Mr Williams himself had suggested, mischievous.

Press Councillors noted a lack of direct evidence on just when the Dominion became aware of the error. Upholding the complaint, they ruled that the newspaper should have done more to verify its initial report. More particularly, once the mistake had been realised, it should - notwithstanding the chancellor's demurral - have acknowledged in print that its original information had been incorrect.