MR M. MCCULLY AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 571

Council Meeting: APRIL 1995

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

A complaint by Mr McCully, Minister of Housing, against the New Zealand Herald has been upheld by the Press Council. Mr McCully complained to the Press Council that he had been misrepresented in two articles which appeared in the newspaper on 12 January and 14 January 1995.

The matter originated in a story published on 10 January in which a Mr Ropata, solo father of five, was described as having been forced to move out of his state house into a cabin in a caravan park because he could not afford the rent.

The Minister immediately issued a press release saying that the story was misleading and failed to give full information about Mr Ropata's income. He claimed that by the move, Mr Ropata saved only $5.25, giving figures which showed a weekly income of $436, including a family support payment of $150, and showing that the saving in rent would be partly offset by a reduction in the accommodation supplement.

In a further story on 12 January, the Herald reported that Mr Ropata denied the Minister's claim he would save only $5 pointing out that he saved a further $35 in power and food costs. Mr Ropata's account of his weekly income was also given in detail, amounting to $409 with a family support payment of $123.

This story was followed by a letter from the Minister to the editor of the Herald saying he had been misrepresented and asking for a correction. He said the detailed figures he had given were not used; and that they included a figure of $150 for family support which was based on the belief, confirmed by his press secretary from the Herald reporter, that Mr Ropata had custody of all his children. The figures in the story suggested that either only four children were involved or Mr Ropata was not getting the sum he was entitled to. He stood by his assertion that he could not accept that someone on a weekly income of $436 could not afford to live in a state house.

On 14 January yet another story appeared, headed "McCully stands by claim." Its opening paragraph said Mr McCully stood by his claim that a solo father of five on $409 a week could afford to live in a state house. The story went on to give the Minister's earlier figures explaining that the Herald had since learned that Mr Ropata had charge of only four children.. It claimed however that this did not materially affect the dispute about how much Mr Ropata saved by changing his accommodation because the differential between the costs of the two types of accommodation remained the same.

The Minister wrote once more to the editor challenging the first paragraph which he said was untrue. He pointed out that his press secretary had specifically checked the custody situation with the reporter. He accused the Herald of "shabby and unprofessional treatment."

The editor responded at length saying they had been using different figures. He agreed Mr McCully had consistently used $436 as the man's weekly income: but that the correct figure, used consistently by the Herald, was $409. He claimed that the reporter had not confirmed the number of children in custody to the press secretary, as was asserted. He thought the difference of the figures did not affect the main point because the amount of money saved was the same either way. He believed the 14 January story was an "honest and sincere attempt to clarify the confusion" and that the $409 in the first paragraph was not a direct attribution, but a fact. He also claimed that the Minister's letter failed to acknowledge that the details of the confusion were explained in the 14 January story and rebutted the charge that Mr McCully's figures were not used on 12 January.

In his letter to the Press Council, the editor confirmed his earlier views especially concerning the story of 14 January. He added that he did not accept that his staff had any responsibility to advise the Minister or his office and that he did not believe the Herald had misrepresented the Minister. The Minister's letter to the Council expressed continuing concern that the paper appeared to regard the opening paragraph of the 14 January story as neither misreporting nor inaccuracy.

The Press Council upheld the complaint only in respect of the story of 14 January. Most people reading the first paragraph of this article would assume that $409 was the figure used by the Minister; but Mr McCully at no point used this figure. The Council agreed that the discrepancy in figures was explained later in the article and also that the subject of the complaint did not materially affect the main point at issue between the Minister and the newspaper. But the Council did not believe this should excuse the Herald for attributing to the Minister a claim he did not make, a claim emphasised in the headline. While the staff of the newspaper was under no obligation to provide the Minister or his staff with the revised information about the number of children, it would have made sense to do so and thus to have avoided a confused and misleading account of his views.