NORTHLAND HEALTH AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

The New Zealand Press Council has rejected a complaint that a Sunday Star-Times editorial had been unfair and unbalanced in its commentary on the circumstances in which Harry Findlay had been relieved of the obligation to pay further for his wife’s medical treatment by Northland Health Ltd.

On 29 March, under the heading “Well Done Harry !” the editorial said that old people would celebrate Mr Findlay’s victory over ‘the faceless health bureaucrats.’ It described him as the man who fought Northland Health on a point of principle over what it termed the scandalous charges for his wife’s treatment and said that the charges would be paid by the Health Funding Authority. The editorial said that it was well known that health in New Zealand was in a parlous mess. It went on to observe one sad fact of the mess was illustrated by the statement by the head of Northland
Health, Mr Wayne Brown who, in commenting on the outcome achieved by Mr
Findlay, had said that the CHE had been paid and (in quotation marks) “that’s the bottom line.”

This led Mr Brown to complain to the editor in a letter he directed should not be published. In this he sought an apology or the publication of an article acceptable to himself.

No accommodation having been reached, the next step was a lawyer’s letter which, on Mr Brown’s behalf, set out a series of objections to the editorial. It took particular exception to the reference to the “bottom line” quote attributed to Mr Brown who, it said, had been quoted inaccurately and out of context and in such a way as to suggest he had been speaking directly to the editorial writer. It complained that no contact had been made with Mr Brown before publication and that he and Northland Health had been incorrectly described as ‘faceless health bureaucrats’ and ‘health bean counters.’ concerned only with the bottom line. It said finally that the suggestion that New Zealand health was in a parlous mess, implied that Northland Health was in the same condition whereas it was making a profit and investing it locally.

The editor rejected these arguments. He said that the quotation about the “bottom line” had been received from the New Zealand Press Association which had verified the accuracy of the words quoted. The editorial in no way suggested that it had been quoting directly from a conversation between the writer and Mr Brown. The editorial was not a news report, but a commentary on an event already reported. Accordingly it would have been inappropriate to consult Mr Brown about it. The references to ‘faceless health bureaucrats’ and ‘bean counters’ did not refer to Northland Health or Mr Brown. If a reader were to take them in that sense it would be because as Chairman of Northland Health, Mr Brown was part of the health system on which the writer was entitled to comment. He denied that the editorial implied that Northland Health was itself in a parlous mess. It was an expression of opinion on the national health system as a whole.

The Press Council observed that Mr Brown might have achieved a better
understanding of his position if, at the outset, he had sought publication of his letter to the editor. It was perhaps natural enough that he should bridle at the editorial’s somewhat uncomplimentary references to Northland Health Ltd. The arguments advanced on Mr Brown’s behalf were somewhat overstated, but did not outweigh the fact that the editorial fell within the area of free comment. It was reasonable that the writer should have used the references to the bottom line as indicative of what he saw
as a general disposition on behalf of health policy makers to favour receipts over people. The editorial was an expression of the writer’s opinions about the health system in general. As such, it did not have to be fair or balanced and it was open to challenge. It did not transgress accepted journalistic standards or practice. The complaint was accordingly not upheld.

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