NZ TEACHERS COUNCIL AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES1. The New Zealand Teachers’ Council (the Teachers Council) complains about an article in the Sunday Star-Times on 29 August 2010 and the placement of a letter from the director of the Teachers Council replying to that article. The complaints are not upheld.
2. There are three complaints:
(a) A lack of fairness and balance in reporting on the process by which the Ombudsman resolved a dispute under the Official Information Act (the Act);
(b) Significant factual inaccuracies in the reporting on a case appealed to the District Court;
(c) Lack of fairness in the positioning and presentation of the Teachers Council’s response to the article of 29 August 2010.
3. The article of 29 August 2010 was a front page article which also referred to a fuller article on page 2. The front page article was headed:
“Criminals in our classrooms”
It contained a box column headed:
“The story the Teachers Council did not want told”
4. The boxed article stated that the search for the information to expose the criminals teaching children “ultimately needed the intervention of the Ombudsman”; the Teachers Council declined a request for information believing it was not in the public interest; requests were made under the Act seeking a range of information; the Teachers Council refused “primarily on the grounds it ‘would require substantial collation and research’. It also said it wanted $3,277.12 to cover costs”; the Ombudsman reduced the charge to $760 which was paid; and the process of obtaining the information was just a day short of a year and had involved the Ombudsman consulting the Privacy Commissioner and Teachers Council officials plus reviewing various Teachers Council submissions.
5. On 5 September 2010, the newspaper published a letter from the director of the Teachers Council which stated that the article had misrepresented the way the Teachers Council responded to the request under the Act. It set out a chronology; noted that the Teachers Council had provided a breakdown of the costs totalling $3,277.12; that the newspaper had agreed to omit two fields from its request; the Ombudsman when reducing the cost to $760, did not have to consider these two fields; and that the Teachers Council did not control the timing for releasing information as it was reliant upon the Ombudsman’s report. The letter also referred to an error in the report which is the substance of the allegation by the Teachers Council that there were significant factual inaccuracies in the report. This letter appeared alongside a follow-up article headed “Teachers point finger at criminal students”.
6. In further correspondence the Teachers Council refers to a clarification published by the Sunday Star-Times on 19 September 2010. This was not part of the original complaint to the Sunday Star-Times nor was it part of the original complaint to the Press Council but it will be referred to in this decision.
7. The first complaint alleges that the original article failed to correctly report the way the Teachers Council responded to the Act. It is alleged that the reporting was misleading and inaccurate and designed to cast the Teachers Council in as bad a light as possible. It neglected to say that the initial estimate of costs covered a much broader request than was finally agreed as a result of the Sunday Star-Times voluntarily making a reduction in the extent of its requests and that “the reduction in cost to $760 reflected the reduction in information sought”. The Teachers Council submitted that these omissions were intended to give the plain implication that the Teachers Council was seeking to overcharge the newspaper, presumably because it was a story the Teachers Council “did not want told”. The Teachers Council also makes the point that it was in no way controlling the timing of the release of information. It was reliant upon the Ombudsman’s final report.
8. The Teachers Council’s “significant factual inaccuracies” relate to the way in which a District Court decision was reported in the page 2 article. It referred to a case where “a Judge criticised the Council for allowing a tutor who assaulted a student to remain teaching, saying that decision was wrong when hearing an appeal by the student’s mother...”. It referred to the Council’s decision which said the case was not at the serious end of the scale and that it would be a loss to the profession if the man was banned. The inaccuracies were that the appeal was brought by the Complaints Assessment Committee of the Teachers Council and not by the student’s mother; the decision was that of the New Zealand Teachers’ Disciplinary Tribunal and not the Teachers Council; and that the Tribunal and the Teachers Council are not interchangeable. Thus the statements attributable to the Teachers Council were statements of the Tribunal.
9. The page 2 article stated that about 60% of the self-reported convictions are for drink driving. This is inaccurate because 65% of such convictions are for drink driving.
10. The complaint relating to the publishing of the letter from the director of the Teachers Council is that it was not given sufficient prominence in comparison to the front page attention given to the original article.
The Newspaper’s Response
11. The Sunday Star-Times notes that the Teachers Council has not challenged the substance of the story. It did take approximately a year to have the information it sought released and the laborious process used to obtain the information would not have been necessary if the Teachers Council had engaged with it like a responsible public body; if it had so engaged, the information would have been released a lot earlier and the circumstances of its release entitled the Sunday Star-Times to say it was a story that the Teachers Council did not want to be told; and it does not accept that the gathering of the information is as costly as claimed by the Teachers Council when digital age information is easily gathered in efficient organisations.
12. Neither party originally provided the correspondence or the decisions of the Ombudsman. These were relevant to the complaint and should have been provided.
13. The Ombudsman, either in his draft decision or his final decision
• Noted that the Teachers Council was now prepared to provide most of the information sought;
• Noted the decision to refuse to provide the information in the form preferred was made under the provisions of the Act designed to protect the privacy of natural persons;
• Together with the Privacy Commissioner, determined there was no privacy interest in the information requested and that in any event any privacy interest would likely have been outweighed by the public interest considerations
• Noted that the information was to be provided in the way preferred by the person requesting it, unless to do so would prejudice the interests of the persons referred to and there is no countervailing public interest;
• Expressed his provisional view that the Teachers Council was not entitled to refuse to supply the information in the form preferred by the applicant;
• Did not accept that the Teachers Council’s time estimate to provide the information was reasonable;
• Noted that the Teachers Council had agreed to provide the information for no more than $760; previously noting it should have considered whether, in the public interest, it should have been imposing the charges.
• Did not ultimately rule on the Teachers Council’s right to refuse to provide the information as by then the Teachers Council had agreed to provide it.
14. The Ombudsman process did take a very lengthy time and was a major factor in the delay in getting the information. It is the view of the Press Council that the Teachers Council should have engaged in meaningful discussions rather than have required the matter to be determined by the Ombudsman.
15. The Teachers Council may have felt that it was entitled to take the view it did in response to the request from the Sunday Star-Times but having done so, is not immune from the comments which the newspaper made. The article did state that the Teacher’s Council’s refusal was primarily on the grounds of cost. The Press Council accepts that there could have been a wrong inference drawn from the manner in which the Ombudsman’s complaint was reported. However, the prompt publication of the director’s letter on 5 September 2010 rectified the position. When it received a formal complaint, after publication of that letter, it published an appropriate clarification on 19 September 2010. In the circumstances the Press Council does not uphold the first complaint.
16. Neither is the complaint on the reporting the District Court appeal upheld. There were errors in the initial article but these were adequately corrected by the publication of the director’s letter and the subsequent clarification.
17. Finally, the positioning and presentation of that letter was in the circumstances adequate. The letter did appear alongside a follow-up article which was supportive of teachers. However, the more important point is that the letter was published on the weekend of the Christchurch earthquake. It is understandable that other matters took priority in the circumstances. It appeared with other letters both for and against in a section headed “Feedback on teaching story”. In these circumstances the positioning and presentation was adequate.
18. It is noted that some members of the Press Council do have some reservations relating to the Sunday Star-Times conduct. First, the initial request for information was expecting a lot of the Teachers Council. It was very broad. Secondly, the 19 September clarification could have been more explicit. Appearing three weeks after the original article, it could have provided more detail to identify the errors in that article. On balance those members determined that their reservations were not sufficient to uphold the complaint.
19. The grounds the Teachers Council used as reason for not providing the information in the form requested - privacy, lack of public interest and cost (both in time required and difficulty in accessing the information), were all found at some point to be of questionable validity by the Ombudsman’s Office.
20. The Press Council would urge organisations to adhere to the spirit of the Official Information Act when information is requested.
21. For the above reasons the complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind and Keith Lees took no part in the consideration of this complaint.