The New Zealand Society of Local Government Managers (the Society) complains against an online article on the National Business Review (NBR) headed “Old boys’ club hikes council bosses’ pay”. The Complaint alleges that the article is not accurate, is unfair and unbalanced and therefore it breaches Principle 1 of the Council’s Statement of Principles.
The Complaint is upheld.

The Article
The first sentence of the article read:
An old boy’s club is behind the huge salary packages being offered to many of the 78 local government CEOs in New Zealand, according to a highly placed insider source.
The allegation made by the source and noted in the article as emanating from the source included:
a) The Society is an old boys club that controls and determines the appointments of CEOs to local authorities;
b) The Society is behind the huge salary packages offered to many local government CEOs; and

The Complaint
The Complaint noted:
a) The Society is a professional body whose members include all levels of local government managers. As a group, CEOs only make up around 1/6th of the society’s membership, and not all local government CEOs are members. It also noted that the club could not be an old boys club as the president and chief executive are both female.
b) The Society does not have, and never has had, any role in determining the remuneration of CEOs. Remuneration and other conditions of employment are determined by the employing local authority. Nor does the Society provide advice to local government regarding CEOs remuneration.
c) The Society has no role in the appointment of local government chief executives. Under the Local Government Act, the decision as to whom to employ is in the hands of the elected council members. The councils decide how and where to advertise, and what goes in the advertisement and the society has no role in these matters.
The complaint that the publication was unfair and unbalanced is based on:
a) There was no attempt to contact the Society for its view and response to the allegation; and
b) The matter was not urgent. The allegations could have been put to the Society and it should have been given an opportunity to respond before any publication.

The NBR Response
The NBR stands by the story and the credibility of its source. It says that it is based on the views and opinions of a person well-versed in local government whose word NBR had no reason to doubt.
NBR states that it reserves the right to publish robust items, without necessarily having to seek out the response of other parties who may or may not have some interest in the story topic.
Finally, NBR notes that the Society could have had a right of reply but did not seek it.

The article made it clear that it was the views of a highly placed insider source. The Society in its Complaint says that the views were inaccurate and it gave plausible reasons for the inaccuracies. The Council is not in a position to rule on the accuracy. However, it is clear that NBR did not make any attempt to check the accuracy before publication. In the Council’s view, it should have done.

Fairness and balance is another issue. As stated in Principle 1 of the Council’s Statement of Principles; “In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.” This comment applies equally to serious criticism of an organisation, as will be noted below.

The Council has in many decisions held that where there are serious allegations made against an organisation, a response must be sought, and if possible, published both immediately and with reasonable prominence: see Walsh v. Dominion Post (Case 916). In Real Management v. NZ Herald (Case 806), the Council called the right to have serious allegations put to an organisation before publication as an entitlement. This principle applies regardless of the source of the information.

Here there was no urgency in the story and the NBR breached Principle 1 by not putting the allegations to the Society and seeking its response and publishing that response alongside the allegation. If the Society had declined to respond, NBR would have then been entitled to publish the allegations, noting that the Society had declined to respond.

The Complaint is therefore upheld on the grounds of failure to seek and give a fair voice to the Society’s view.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.

Peter Fa’afiu took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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