PARIHAKA MANAGEMENT TRUST AGAINST TARANAKI DAILY NEWSIntroduction
Parihaka International Peace Festival Trust director Te Miringa Hohaia has complained about a Taranaki Daily News article (January 13, 2009) in which a Maori warden is reported as saying the Parihaka peace festival was the scene of drug abuse.
He says the article “Parihaka drug shock for warden”, presented as the opinion of one woman, comprised “unsubstantiated conjecture”, and breaches Press Council principles of Accuracy (including Fairness and Balance), Comment and Fact, Discrimination, and Headlines and Captions.
He says the article was “the latest in a string of incidents” with “a gratuitous focus on the negative for Maori”. Its intent was to “grab a sensational headline at Maori expense” and its effect was to “defame” Parihaka and the festival activities.
The story, which concluded with a sentence saying Mr Hohaia could not be reached for comment, was followed the next day by an article, “Counsellor: Parihaka no stoner city”, giving contrary and positive views from representatives of the police, security and a youth counsellor.
The complaint is supported by other Maori making the point that, on Fairfax NZ’s Stuff website, only the first, negative story was distributed.
The complaint is part upheld, on the issue of balance.
On Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Mr Hohaia says the article, the opinion of one woman, wrongly suggested a widespread drug problem. No other voice was included to substantiate or challenge the serious allegations made. Police were later reported as saying they would be naïve to say cannabis was not used at the event, but there had been no reports of concern made to them.
Reporting he (Mr Hohaia) could not be contacted, ignored the fact reporters knew well he was working on the festival site. The area had poor cell phone cover, but no messages had been left for him at known Parihaka landlines.
Readers had been misled or misinformed including by omission, he says. The woman quoted had been correctly described as a leading South Taranaki Maori warden, but she had not been attending the festival in an official role.
On Comment and Fact, he says the warden had told a subsequent Hui her comments had been based on a single incident relating to five children in the early hours of the morning away from festival grounds. She had also said she had been misquoted.
On Discrimination, he says the main reason for rushing the article to print was to “grab a sensational headline at Maori expense”: “Had there been real evidence of what [the warden] alleged, we would accept that it was in the public interest to publish it. It was not.”
On Headlines and Captions, he says words and images used - including the headline (“Parihaka drug shock for warden” and the sub-head, “Children smoking cannabis, worried woman claims”) – were designed to grab attention and sell papers. He takes similar umbrage with a front-page masthead reading, “Parihaka shock: Maori warden’s disgust at young kids smoking dope”, placed alongside a close-up image of cannabis smoking.
There was no reason for a story to have been rushed to print, when balancing opinions were available. The harm had been compounded by the story’s wide distribution, in New Zealand and overseas.
The Newspaper’s Response
Daily News editor Jonathan MacKenzie says his reporters made several unsuccessful attempts to achieve balance by contacting Mr Hohaia, including calling his home (leaving messages) and to his cell phone (which gave an “unavailable” message). His staff had been unaware he could only be reached at the festival grounds.
The Trust’s assertion that the incident had occurred outside festival grounds, on a marae but still at Parihaka, negated the importance of the core issue.
As a result of Mr Hohaia’s unavailability, the paper had achieved balance with the following day’s story, in the same place and on the same page as the original.
The paper was perfectly entitled to quote a respected Maori warden.
The newspaper had been a major supporter of the festival for many years. As usual, it had this year run several positive stories and photographs leading up to the event. “I think you need to get some perspective on this story and see it against the preponderance of positive coverage your festival enjoys.”
Contrary to the criticisms, the paper was demonstrably sensitive to Maori and their way of doing things. But in this case, a “whistleblower” had broken protocol to report serious issues of drug taking by children.
Mr MacKenzie supplied articles to demonstrate his newspaper’s generally positive attitude toward Maori and Maori issues, and a printout of phone call messages (made before and after the original article) to show his staff had sought Trust comment.
The January 13 article comprises a - clearly attributed - Maori warden’s concerns about drug use at the festival.
Mr Hohaia questions the accuracy of her utterances saying that, at a later hui, she had claimed to have been misquoted, and that the drug-taking to which she referred had been off festival grounds. But he has not addressed the specifics of her quotes. Although he has offered the Council a recording of hui discussion, it might have been more compelling had the warden herself made a complaint alleging inaccuracies, or at least endorsed his.
To argue that the warden was an inappropriate source is untenable. She was not speaking on behalf of anybody, but as a witness; the paper could have validly listened to any festival goer.
Regardless of what passed between her and festival organisers at the hui, it is beyond the ability of the Council to resolve issues of accuracy in relation to the observed incident.
On the question of balance, the Daily News is on less certain ground. The paper was perfectly justified in investigating believed drug abuse at the festival. But, although it is believable the newspaper may have been unable to get hold of Mr Hohaia on the night before publication, it stretches belief it could find no-one in authority for an overview response or larger perspective.
Relying on subsequent stories for balance is an especially risky practice when the stories are shared with other news media via the Internet. While the initial story might have grabbed the attention of another newspaper, the “balancing” follow-up might not.
There is no confusion between comment and fact: all festival criticism in the article emanates from the warden’s mouth.
Charging the paper with deliberate discrimination is unduly harsh: numerous articles supplied to the Council suggest a generally positive attitude toward Maori. What seems to be at issue here, as Mr Hohaia himself avers, is a haste to put out “a good story”.
The headlines and captions – as well as the masthead picture of cannabis smoking – while upsetting to festival organisers, were designed to catch the attention. That was their purpose. They are valid as long as the warden’s concerns have been correctly reported - the paper was careful to attribute all critical comments to her.
For the reasons given above, the Press Council does not uphold on the complained-about grounds of Comment and Fact, Headlines and Captions, or Discrimination.
However, in a story making strong allegations, the paper had a responsibility to make an effort to check facts and provide balance. It was not enough to make a few attempts at contacting one festival organiser. Where there is controversy or conflict, the Council has previously urged publications of the necessity to check all sides before first publication. Apart from shock value, there was no reason here not to hold back publication for a day, should that have been necessary.
The Council therefore upholds the complaint on the ground of lack of balance.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.