MERIDIAN ENERGY AGAINST OAMARU MAILThe complaint arises from an “Opinion” piece in which, as the heading put it, “Oamaru Mail general manager Rod Bidois puts his case for scrapping Meridian Energy’s Project Aqua.”
In this article Mr Bidois expressed in forceful fashion his opinion that the combined hydro-electric-irrigation project proposed by Meridian on the Waitaki River would have disastrous ecological and economic consequences.
A footnote explained that Meridian chief executive Keith Turner would give his view in a future issue.
When Dr Turner’s article reached the paper its opening paragraphs stated: “When the management of a newspaper seizes control of the editorial pen there is clearly something awry. In doing so at such length in his offering on Project Aqua – without disclosing his personal interests in the debate – the general manager of the Oamaru Mail Rod Bidois placed in question his newspaper’s editorial integrity and independence.” It then went on to outline the case for Project Aqua.
However, when the article appeared, those opening paragraphs had been removed.
Instead there was a footnote from the editor stating that “Oamaru Mail general manager Rod Bidois’ wife is the minutes secretary and his brother-in-law is a member of the Waitaki River Users group.”
Dr Turner subsequently complained to the paper and later to the Press Council about the Mail’s treatment of the subject.
Among other things he objected that the Mail had failed to disclose Mr Bidois’ personal interest in the debate when it printed his article, by highlighting instead his position as general manager of the Mail it gave the impression that his article represented the paper’s opinion, because he was general manager. Mr Bidois’views were given greater space than would be available to an ordinary citizen and while his article was run as supplied the response from Meridian was edited.
In response the editor said Mr Bidois’ article was clearly labeled as “Opinion”, the paper did not initially identify his indirect connection with the River Users Group because it was not considered relevant but did so later when Dr Turner made an issue of the matter. His work title was given because that was the paper’s usual policy and the opening paragraphs of Meridian’s response had been edited because “they covered an issue which was a bone of contention between the paper and Dr Turner and was not a matter for our readers.”
If the article complained of had been by someone with no connection with the paper it probably could be seen as acceptable.
It was marked as an opinion piece and its content was an unashamed polemic. While it is preferable for an Opinion writer’s affiliations to be identified it would not normally be considered necessary to extend that to the interests of other family members.
But the fact that the article was written by the paper’s general manager should have been recognized as a cause for taking greater than usual care.
In the absence of any explanation there was an obvious potential for readers to take the article to be a statement of opinion from the Mail rather than a personal comment from a private individual.
The Council is unable to comment on whether the space and prominence given to Mr Bidois’ views was unusual but in running his views the way it did the paper was certainly opening itself up to the risk of criticism for giving him special treatment.
It is hardly surprising that supporters of Project Aqua, like Dr Turner, took it to mean that the paper’s management had intervened to compromise its independence on the issue.
The complaint is upheld.