PAT TIMINGS AGAINST NZ LISTENERIntroduction and Background
In its edition of 27 January 2007, the NZ Listener (“Listener”) published its weekly column by Joanne Black, headed “Beyond the Pale”. The page was entitled “THE BLACK PAGE”. The sub-heading read:
“Summer Holidays: There’s no better time for board games and a blue with the local zealot”
The article was in three sections and it is the second section which is the subject of the complaint by Pat Timings. That section described an event at Patons Rock Beach “when a man approached waving his arms and asking my friend if she had seen the dog–ban notice”. The article included:
“It is good that there are people prepared to look after their local communities and uphold the bylaws, but I confess an allergy to zealots. I became convinced that if my friend and I whipped off our clothes for some nude sunbathing, we would have sent this guy into an apoplectic rage from which he might never have recovered.”
The complaint is not upheld.
Mr Timings was not named in the article but has done voluntary work at the beach for approximately 30 years and he says that he is well-known in the area and that most Golden Bay people knew to whom Ms Black was referring.
Mr Timings wrote a letter to the Listener, which was published, although the last sentence which stated that Ms Black should apologise was not published. The published letter noted that Ms Black’s friend had been told when she made a booking that dogs were not allowed on the beach during the summer holiday months. She ignored that restriction and he had to speak to her, that being the undertaking he had with the Tasman DC. Mr Timings, in his letter, said he was polite and referred a male companion of the dog owner, who wanted to argue the matter, to the Tasman District Council dog control. His letter ended with:
“Your columnist’s description of my behaviour at the time, portraying me as some sort of village idiot, is insulting, dishonest, vulgar, cowardly and irrelevant.”
Another letter supporting Mr Timings was also published by the Listener.
Mr Timings found the column arrogant and insulting. He complained under several of the Council’s principles, namely accuracy (Principle 1), corrections (Principle 2), privacy (Principle 3), children and young people (Principle 5), comment and fact (Principle 6), discrimination (Principle 8) and captions (Principle 10).
The nub of Mr Timings’ complaint is that the column put him in a poor light, therefore misleading readers. He alleges that the column made insulting and lying remarks about him, and he sought correction of what he alleged were factual errors. These included “a man approached waving his arms”, “my friends are responsible types”, “poked his head into a campervan”, “It was raining and there were about 10 people on two kilometres of beach”, “zealot”, “apoplectic rage” and “a blue” as the latter term appeared in the subheading. Mr Timings was offended by the standfirst “a blue with the local zealot”.
The Listener’s Position
The Listener’s position is that Ms Black described the event as it took place. She was standing at the water’s edge talking to her friend, who had a small dog on a lead, when they were approached by a man asking her friend if she had seen a sign banning dogs from the beach. Ms Black’s friend took the dog away and her friend’s husband became involved in a discussion with the local man about the dog by-law. Eventually, the local man walked off.
In response to the particular allegations made by Mr Timings, the Listener’s position is that Ms Black accurately described the events as they occurred and, although Mr Timings takes issue with Ms Black’s interpretation of his behaviour, he has not pointed to any factual errors and, in fact, his version of events confirms Ms Black’s description. There was therefore nothing to correct. There was no breach of privacy because the scene occurred in a public place during holidays. The exchange could have been observed by anyone present. Mr Timings was not named in the column and Ms Black did not know his identity until such time as he wrote to the Listener. The column did not confuse the distinction between comment and fact and the column on The Black Page was obviously an opinion piece with Ms Black’s name and photograph at the top. The opinions expressed were those of Ms Black. The Listener denied the allegation that the column gave the impression that Mr Timings was borderline senile and Ms Black does not resile from her description in the subheading, namely “a blue with the local zealot”.
There are differences between the parties as to the facts of this case. The Council cannot resolve factual differences. There is no doubt that Mr Timings approached Ms Black’s friend and advised her of the by-law prohibiting dogs from being on the beach at that time of the year and that there was a reasonably long discussion. As the Council can not resolve the factual dispute, it can not make a finding that Ms Black’s column contained inaccurate facts. Some of the alleged factual inaccuracies were either comment or supposition based on facts, e.g. “local zealot” and “apoplectic rage”.
A commentator, provided that the opinion given is based on facts, is entitled to be forthright and express opinions which a reader may not like. In this case, it is quite clear that Ms Black was critical of Mr Timings and the manner in which he approached her friend. Whether rightly or wrongly, Ms Black, although acknowledging that it was good that there are people prepared to look after their local communities and uphold the by-laws, was critical of the manner in which Mr Timings approached and talked to her friend and her friend’s husband. Providing she did not distort the facts, she was entitled to express her opinion in a strong manner. She did this by her reference to “the local zealot” and, to a lesser extent, by the reference to a man approaching “waving his arms”. The Council’s view is that she was not criticising Mr Timings for doing what he saw as his public duty but for the manner in which she perceived he did his self imposed duty.
Whether Ms Black was right or wrong in the opinion she expressed, the Council is of the view that she was free to do so, provided she did not distort the facts. The Council is unable to make such a finding. It is, therefore, unable to make a finding that the Listener infringed the principles of “Accuracy” and “Corrections”.
It is only necessary to comment briefly on the other allegations. There was no breach of privacy, as Mr Timings was not named in the article and the matter happened on a public beach. The fact that he was evidently identified by many readers in the Golden Bay area does not mean, in the circumstances, that Ms Black breached any privacy principle.
The allegation that the journalists should be careful of reporting on people of Mr Timings’ age is not upheld. By his own admission, Mr Timings approached the group and the dog owner’s male friend argued with him at some length. Mr Timings has obviously been a diligent volunteer assisting the local Council and was awarded a QSM for his services. However, the Press Council does not accept that the column suggested he was “borderline senile”. Nor does the Council uphold the complaint relating to the standfirst, and the use of the word “zealot”. Mr Timings as a volunteer had obviously undertaken for many years the task of drawing to the attention of those people who did not observe the sign, the obligation to keep the beach clean. Ms Black was of the opinion that Mr Timings was over-enthusiastic in the pursuit of what he saw as his duty, and was entitled to express her opinion in these terms.
The Council does not read the article as portraying Mr Timings in the manner in which he suggested he was portrayed in the letter which he submitted for publication in the Listener. The Council accepts that the article was not complimentary of Mr Timings when it comments on the manner of his approach. However, it was clearly the opinion which Ms Black formed based on the facts that she stated in her article
For this reason, the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean and Alan Samson.