MINISTRY OF JUSTICE AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESThe Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Ministry of Justice that two Waikato Times’ reports of cuts in the number of court bailiffs lacked balance.
The reports, published on November 26 and 29, 2014, covered concerns that the cuts posed a danger to remaining bailiffs and at-risk children since the work could involve clamping vehicles, seizing property and preventing the removal of children from their primary caregiver. It often meant facing gangs or violent offenders.
An unnamed source, who had provided the newspaper with a ministry document on the cuts, said there was significant concern for the safety of solitary bailiffs. They could get police help but this meant negotiating suitable times and was not practicable for urgent work.
The Times sought comment from the Minister of Justice and Courts, Amy Adams, but she declined, saying it was “an operational matter”.
Antony Paltridge, media and external relations team leader for the Ministry of Justice, complained that the newspaper’s failure to put questions to the ministry after being referred to it by the minister’s office, breached the Press Council’s principles of fairness and balance.
He had contacted the reporter after the first story appeared and attempted to explain the distinction between “policy”, which was the minister’s role, and “implementation” which was the ministry’s territory. He said the reporter refused to put questions to the ministry because she believed the minister ought to be answerable.
The complainant then approached the acting chief reporter who invited him to submit a statement, but Mr Paltridge would only respond to questions from the paper.
He took his complaint to the editor, Jonathan MacKenzie, who suggested an interview with the ministry’s general manager, collections. Again the complainant insisted on receiving questions for the ministry to answer.
The Editor’s Response
Mr MacKenzie told the Press Council the Waikato Times had reported the ministry’s reason for the cuts as set out in the leaked document and the newspaper “simply had no questions to put to the Ministry of Justice. The document says it all.”
He agreed with his reporter that the minister ought to be answerable for the cuts. “If a bailiff were injured or killed on the job because of budget cuts and resulting lay-offs, readers of the Waikato Times would hold the elected minister responsible, not a faceless bureaucrat who implemented the change.”
Mr MacKenzie drew the Council’s attention to a subsequent story, published after the complaint was filed and dated the day of his response. The story included a statement from the ministry that bailiffs would have the same safety procedures and equipment as previously. These included a risk assessment before a visit and working in pairs alongside police if it was considered necessary.
The Council has sympathy for the view that ministers of the government should be answerable for any decision and action of their ministry. News media and their audiences want a recognisable figure, accountable to voters, to answer their questions.
However, a newspaper’s responsibility is to inform its readers as fully as it can. Having highlighted the possible dangers to bailiffs the Waikato Times published two reports that left readers with an obvious question: what do the decision-makers say about this?
The first story could have answered the question. It did not, nor did a follow up three days later, which reported the concerns of the Police Association and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. It was not until the third story published, more than a month later, that readers were given the ministry’s statement. Readers were then able to decide for themselves whether its precautions seemed sufficient.
It is unfortunate that the complainant did not accept the newspaper’s first invitation to submit a statement. That offer satisfies the principle of fairness. Had Mr Paltridge accepted it, the ministry’s safety procedure for bailiffs might have been reported much earlier. Public information was not well served by his insistence on dealing with questions from the paper.
But the primary fault lay with the newspaper which could have obtained the information that would have produced a more balanced report at the outset. On that ground the complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.