MR M J EVANS AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 722

Council Meeting: February 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

The Council has not upheld a complaint by Mr M.J. Evans, Chief Rural Fire Officer Hedgehope Rural Fire Inc. against The Southland Times over an article printed on October 24, 1998 largely concerned with a fire that had occurred on Saturday, May 2 1998 when a vacant building in Hedgehope was razed to the ground as a result of arson.

The article in question was headlined “Fiery end” and was a feature article in the edition of The Southland Times. The event of the fire, that had occurred some 5 months prior, was used by the newspaper as a platform for a human interest story about how a couple who had bought land in the district, including that on which the torched building stood, had supposedly been treated by the Hedgehope community.

In 1992 the couple purchased a block of land at Hedgehope, later leased another block, and purchased, in 1996, a further block on which stood the ill fated building known as the Hedgehope store. The building was about 100 years old and by all accounts was in the state of advanced dilapidation so much so that it was apparently regarded by the locals as a liability to the district. It had not been recently occupied although there was some expectation by the couple that it could be opened as a craft shop. On the night of 2 May 1998 it was torched by 2 men who later pleaded guilty to the charge of arson, were convicted, and one was ordered to pay compensation. The motive for the arson was said in court to be a service to the district by the destruction of an offensive, and supposedly dangerously situated building to traffic. The article carried the implication that the total destruction of the building was not a cause for grief in the community.

The article headlined “Fiery end” was bylined and self evidently had required a fair amount of background research. It was somewhat ambitious in its scope in that as the article progressed from a factual account of the fire and the manner in which the local firefighters had handled the blaze it went on to encompass an examination of the relationship that had developed between the Hedgehope community and the couple in question prior to and after the fire. Not surprisingly the article gave a fair coverage to the couple’s views on how they had been unfavourably received by the community. From others there were comments that were both for and against the couple. It is fair to say that read as a whole the feature was not flattering to the Hedgehope community. So much so the newspaper later printed a long response published as an article by an occasional visitor to the town defending the community as a caring and warm one.

The complaint about the article came from the Chief Rural Fire Officer who in his capacity as a fireman had attended the fire. The substance of the complaint was threefold. First, he complained of references to the fire service as a “Fire Party” when in fact it was a fully trained Rural Fire Unit specialising in forest protection. The second was an implied criticism in the article of the manner in which the service had fought the fire perhaps creating an impression it was not entirely committed to the fire’s extinguishment. The third complaint was about the treatment of the Hedgehope community. There were other complaints of a minor nature which need not be particularly addressed.

There is no question but that the article misnamed the service as a Fire Party when in fact it was a Rural Fire Unit. However the explanation for the error is understandable and really absolves the newspaper from censure. Because of the nature of the fire event an official written report was prepared by a New Zealand Fire Service Investigating Officer and it was he who was responsible for the naming error. The original article had been prepared after consulting the official report. The error is to be regretted, but it was not the responsibility of the newspaper.

The second complaint is not so easily disposed of. The complaint relies on interpretation of the article and the Council does not believe it carried the full implications the complainant contended for. It seemed to the Council the article set out to convey as accurately as possible the different views held in the community over this whole unfortunate episode. An arson is always an occurrence of high public interest to any community, large or small, and the newspaper feature article raised some of the currents that swirled around that event. There was no criticism of the fire crew in the official report and the article did not undermine or degrade the crew who attended, as the complainant claimed.

In so far as the complaint embraced the supposed slur on the community the newspaper printed a full rebuttal which is mentioned above.

For the above reasons the Council did not uphold the complaint.