MICHAEL CHAMBERS AGAINST THE EVENING POSTThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint about a front-page headline in the Evening Post of 11 November 1999.
Michael Chambers of Wellington contended that the headline -"Jobs at risk under Labour - Employer" - and its position at the top of the front page, were not in keeping with the story. He complained to the Press Council on 12 November that the presentation was "nothing more than a political statement dressed up as a news story on pretty spurious grounds." Mr Chambers commented that "blatant manipulation of minor stories into eye-catching banner headlines brings the print media into disrepute." In a follow-up letter of 3 December Mr Chambers asserted that the Council's Principle 1 as to "accuracy, fairness and balance" had been contravened. Since the story itself was of little substance he could only view the presentation as a "misuse of the paper's front page for political misrepresentation."
The complaint cannot be separated from the circumstances. The story was published a little over two weeks before a General Election. A major plank in the platform of one of the principal parties was the intention to restore the role of the Accident Compensation Commission as sole provider of workplace insurance. The Evening Post had earlier run an editorial opposing the proposed changes. The story of 11 November reported that a manufacturer in Palmerston North had written to the Labour Party spokesperson on ACC reform to the effect that he would be obliged to shelve expansion plans and inform his staff they would have to forego profit-sharing provisions if ACC again became a State monopoly. The Leader of the Labour Party's vigorous refutation of these assertions was fully covered.
Mr Chambers wrote to the editor on 12 November describing the headline as a "gross misrepresentation of the facts" in the story, adding he would be complaining to the Press Council. On the same day, he addressed a formal complaint to the Press Council. This short-circuited the procedure for complaints to the Press Council. The Evening Post understood the letter to them to be a contribution to the letters-to-the-editor section, and although not publishing it, acknowledged its receipt on the editorial page on 27 November. The Press Council accepts that the Evening Post could be excused for not having interpreted Mr Chambers' letter as the first step in the complaints procedure. In any event there are no procedural questions now in dealing with the complaint.
As to the substance of the complaint, the Press Council could find no disconnect between the headline and the story and finds nothing to justify the accusations of political bias which are the root of the complaint. The media have a particular responsibility during an election campaign to throw light on possible consequences of policies proposed by contending parties and their leaders. The story in question did this, with nearly as much space again allocated to the Labour leader's rebuttal. The Evening Post also published a follow-up story the next day, reporting that the manufacturer in question had hosted a launch by the ACT party of their policy to abolish the ACC. In addition the Evening Post printed on 23 November (four days before the election) three letters taking up issues arising from the 11 November story, including one from the Labour spokeswoman and another again accusing the editor of political bias. The Council notes, finally, that editors may properly choose stories and headlines for the front page which will sell newspapers. In this case, moreover, while the headline was assertive, the story reflected it and offered a balanced report on a major public issue of current concern.
The complaint is not upheld.