MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Ministry of Education against The Dominion Post arising from an article published on October 18, 2007.
Under the heading “$94 million salary cost blowout ‘an outrage’ ” The Dominion Post reported that salaries at the Ministry of Education had risen by 154 per cent since 2002 while staff numbers had risen only by 16 per cent. It said those earning more than $100,000 had grown from 27 to 142 and quoted critical comments from Wellington College headmaster Roger Moses; Principals’ Council chairman Arthur Graves and National spokeswoman Katherine Rich.
The report quoted the Ministry’s human resources manager Donna Hickey as saying organisational changes involving the inclusion of 220 special education staff had skewed the figures. Ms Hickey was also quoted as explaining other factors in the “surge in staff on higher pay.”
The report was based on material provided by the Ministry under the Official Information Act and additional information from the Ministry’s senior media adviser, Iain Butler.
Immediately after the article appeared Mr Butler contacted the newspaper with a letter from Karen Sewell, the Secretary for Education, stating that the article was misleading and inaccurate, particularly in reporting the staff increase as 220 when it was, in fact, more than 2,000. While accepting that an error had been made the newspaper objected to the wording of a corrective letter from the Ministry and it has not been published.
The Ministry complained to the Press Council on November 19 on the grounds of inaccuracy, failure to print a correction, an incorrect headline, and failure to publish a letter to the editor that sought to remedy the damage.
The Ministry stated that 2,200 additional special education and early childhood staff had joined its ranks, accounting for the increase in the total salary bill. This information had been supplied to the newspaper. The proportion of staff paid more than $100,000 had not changed at around 4 per cent and, using head count figures, average salaries had dropped.
The report also attributed to Donna Hickey the words “the surge in staff on higher pay” which she had never used.
The Dominion Post had declined to print a corrective letter, objecting to what the newspaper described as its “snide tone.”
The headline was inaccurate because the story was inaccurate and in failing to publish a letter from the Ministry the newspaper was showing a lack of fairness and balance.
The editor of The Dominion Post replied to the complaint in a letter to the Press Council dated December 21. He explained that the article originated in a request made to the Ministry in July under the Official Information Act and against a background of widespread concern about education funding.
The information was received in a letter dated September 19 and handled by the reporter when he returned from extended leave. He sought comment from interested parties, which was included in the report. The reporter also sought further comment from the Ministry.
The Ministry asked for the story to be delayed while this was obtained. The newspaper agreed and provided the home e-mail address of the reporter who was off duty on that day. The material did not reach that home address before deadline and the final version of the article was prepared by another reporter who incorporated material, including figures supplied by the original writer who was relying on memory as his notes were in the office. The original reporter had had further conversations with Mr Butler outlining the report that the newspaper intended to run. Mr Butler apparently made no comment on the figures.
The editor acknowledged that incorrect figures were used and that some comment was wrongly attributed to Ms Hickey. He had indicated to Mr Butler that they were happy to correct the errors and this offer was still open.
The critical responses from the other parties quoted in the story were based on the actual figures supplied by the Ministry and not the incorrect information and were, therefore, valid.
The total increase in salary at the Ministry was $94 million, 157 per cent, as reported.
The heading that recorded this basic fact and the reaction was accurate.
When informed of the factual errors the newspaper was prepared to publish a corrective letter but the editor challenged the tone, specifically the comment “the facts were all there, using them would have avoided the need for this letter.” The Ministry was asked to reconsider the letter but did not respond before complaining to the Press Council.
In a letter to the Press Council dated February 12 the Ministry’s group communications manager, Michael Pearson, said nothing in The Dominion Post’s response altered the substance of the complaint. The views of those interviewed had not been mentioned by the Ministry in their complaint.
The newspaper had acknowledged the essential error in the figures but had done nothing to correct it. The headline was inaccurate because there had been no blowout in salaries when the staff numbers were taken into account.
The Ministry rejected the description of its letter to the editor as “snide”, saying it was moderate and reasoned.
In his final response in a letter dated February 28 the editor said he stood by his initial response. The newspaper remained willing to publish a correction and had been in discussion with the Ministry about this. The Ministry had chosen to disengage from the process and exercised its right to pursue the matter with the Press Council.
The newspaper has agreed that there were two errors in the story, in the numbers of additional staff the Ministry had employed and in the attribution of a quote. While the total salary bill figure is correct, the failure accurately to record staff numbers fatally undermines the comparison. In the absence of this figure the implication of a cost blowout is not sustainable. The newspaper could quite properly have pointed to the total salary bill and raised the issue involved but the failure to put the figure in context is misleading. That error is compounded by the erroneous attribution of the phrase “surge in staff on higher pay” to a Ministry official.
The newspaper is within its rights in objecting to a phrase in the Ministry’s letter of correction. However the factual errors, which the newspaper admits, should have been corrected. The Ministry did not respond to the newspaper’s continued offer of publishing an amended letter, but to allow the differences between the Ministry and the newspaper to prevent the correction being published, has effectively deprived the readers of accurate reporting. The Council has previously drawn attention to the desirability of the early publication of corrections.
The complaint on inaccuracy is upheld. The newspaper has accepted that a wrong figure was used and that a quote was incorrectly attributed. The figure was of crucial importance to the report.
The complaint on the failure to correct is also upheld. The disagreement between the Ministry and the editor on the wording of the letter did not remove the newspaper’s obligation to ensure its readers had the correct information.
The headline accurately reflects the story but as the blowout charge is based on an inaccurate premise it must be inaccurate.
While the Council has always defended the right of a newspaper to choose what letters to publish the failure to print the Ministry’s letter in any form has resulted in a lack of fairness and balance.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.