The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint that the Whangarei Leader had published an article that was misleading, unbalanced and unfair. At the same time, it observed that the article would have been less open to the charge of lack of balance had the complainant been given the opportunity to answer certain criticisms.

The complaint had its origin in a letter from Dr Muriel Newman, MP (ACT List), inviting women to a Whangarei dinner at which inadequacies in women’s representation in public office would be discussed. The letter said that two of Dr Newman’s parliamentary colleagues and two sitting councillors in Whangarei would speak on their experiences and that other candidates in the local body elections would be involved. Those interested were asked to send $25 to her parliamentary address.

On 1 September 1998, under the heading “Taxpayers pay for invitation,” the Whangarei Leader published an article developing the theme that national level politics appeared to be attempting to intrude in the local body polls. It based this assertion on Dr Newman’s letter of invitation, stressing that it was printed under the parliamentary letterhead and used free parliamentary postage. It quoted extensively from the invitation and reported the contentions of Brian Donnelly,MP (NZ First List) that it was inappropriate to use parliamentary postages for the invitations which he saw as part of ACT’s political tactics.

This drew a complaint from Dr Newman to the editor and subsequently to the Press Council. In a series of exchanges with the editor, she outlined the circumstances in which the “Women In Public Office” dinner had been arranged. She said that it had been extraordinarily successful and was attended by women of all political persuasions. ACT’s only role was to facilitate the evening and share personal experiences. Only the eight local body candidates who attended had put forward political views. It was wrong for the Whangarei Leader to suggest that ACT endorsed or promoted particular candidates in the local body elections.

Mr Donnelly’s comments were completely untrue and, if asked, she would have been able to confirm that the project was officially approved as a legitimate parliamentary activity. The newspaper deserved to be strictly censured, she said, for a story that was one-sided, unbalanced, and a slur on her professionalism.

The editor rejected those evaluations. He said that the article contained a straight repetition of what was in the letter of invitation. Taxpayer postage had been used to promote an ACT function at which ACT MPs spoke and two local body councillors were specifically mentioned in the invitation. He was entitled to express his opinion that the intrusion of national politics into local bodys affairs was unnecessary. He had seen Dr Newman’s activities as reminiscent of attempts at local influence by the Labour Party in 1995 and it was a legitimate news story to compare the two. The Whangarei Leader had seen no compelling reason to speak to Dr Newman about Mr Donnelly’s statements since these were about ACT party activities and part of the normal cut and thrust of politics. But it was open to her to respond by way of a press release or letter to the editor.

In the opinion of the Press Council the newspaper was entitled to present its own interpretation, erroneous or not, on the letter of invitation and to the significance and purpose of the dinner meeting. In commenting on the use made of the parliamentary postage privilege, the paper was pursuing a valid line of comment on a topic of public interest. Dr Newman’s irritation at the Donnelly comments was understandable and the editor would have done better and been less open to the charge of imbalance had her comments been sought on what Mr Donnelly had to say. At the same time, the Council felt that Dr Newman could have used other forms of challenge open to her, including particularly, a letter to the editor, setting out her views for publication. And overall, the Press Council considered that Dr Newman fell short of establishing that the article warranted the Council’s adverse judgments on it.

The complaint was not upheld.


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