Case Number: 2541

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2016

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Wellingtonian


1. Paul Douglas was a candidate for the Capital and Coast District Health Board at the 2016 elections. On September 22,The Wellingtonian published brief descriptions of the candidates for the Health Board along with a rating of them by the Public Health Association.

2. They were assessed on four criteria: “pro-fluoridation”, “population health”, “equity” and “knowledge/experience”. Mr Douglas was rated “very weak” on fluoridation and knowledge/experience and “weak” on equity and population health.

3. He complained to the PHA and the newspaper that the PHA’s rating was misleading and amounted to misinformation that made him out to be a useless candidate. The newspaper offered him a 200-word right of reply. Mr Douglas took up the offer, supplying a response that began with a reference to a cartoon in that morning’s Dominion Post. TheWellingtonian re-wrote it for him and referred it back to him before publication. Mr Douglas insisted his original version be published, which it was, except for the reference to the cartoon.

4. Mr Douglas has complained to the Press Council about both the rating of him published on September 22 and his response published on September 29. The complaints are not upheld.

The Complaint

5. In addition to complaining that the PHA ratings were misinformation and misleading, he points out the material was not clearly labelled as opinion, and believes the newspaper’s treatment of his response amounts to abuse and manipulation.

6. He complains that the original article was biased towards candidates who supported fluoridation, did not make it clear whether the information came from the PHA orThe Wellingtonian and did not carry the name of its author. He considered the article factually inaccurate, unfair, unjustly ruining his election chances, lacking professionalism and being insulting and derogatory of him.

The Response

7. The Wellingtonian’s news director, Amy Jackman, told the Council some candidates objected to their ratings by the PHA and all were offered a right of reply. All except Mr Douglas were satisfied when their responses were published. Mr Douglas’ response had one paragraph removed because it referred to an irrelevant cartoon and would have confused readers.

8. Ms Jackman said it was clearly stated in the introduction to the original article that the scorecard represented the opinion of the PHA. It was based on answers the candidates themselves provided in the survey. All their responses were available online and The Wellingtonian was able to ensure the scorecard accurately reflected the survey.

9. She does not accept there were errors in the material. Mr Douglas and other candidates were offered a right of reply to ensure balance in view of the election.

The Discussion

10. This complaint invokes eight of the Council's principles but it substantially concerns two of them: accuracy fairness and balance, and the need to distinguish between fact and opinion, both especially important where coverage of election candidates is concerned.

11. The Wellingtonian’s presentation of the District Health Board candidates in its issue of September 22 was an unusual mixture of fact and opinion. The full-page display, featuring candidates photos and a potted biography of each, would appear to readers to be purely factual material. The item was not labelled “opinion” in any way though it contained the opinion of the Public Health Association on each candidate.

12. The introduction began with facts. “Voters will elect seven members for the CCDHB....”, then added, “Also included are details from the Public Health Association scorecard.” Readers would have discovered that those “details” were terse judgments on each candidate, ranging from “very strong” to “very weak”.

13. While it would have been better for The Wellingtonian to have flagged the item as opinion with a headline saying something such as, “PHA rates each candidate for the Health Board”, the Press Council believes readers would have quickly realised they were being given the opinions of the PHA. Since the principle requires there be no confusion between fact and comment, the principle was not breached in this case.

14. Mr Douglas complains that the ratings given to him were inaccurate and unfair. He has provided the Council with a copy of his responses to the PHA’s survey as well as some fresh expositions of his views. The material does not support his contention that the PHA’s ratings were an inaccurate or unfair reflection of his attitudes, knowledge or experience. For example, to the survey’s statement, “I support community water fluoridation”, he had answered, “Strongly disagree”. When given a right of reply inThe Wellingtonian of September 29 his only comment on the subject was to refer readers to an article on the internet entitled, “The dangers of fluoride and fluoridation”.

15. As a reflection of the PHA's views, the original article, therefore, was accurate and fair.

16. However, newspapers need to take extra care to be fair and balanced in election campaigns.The Wellingtonian was wise to offer a right of reply to candidates who complained about their ratings. The Council finds no fault with the removal of Mr Douglas' superfluous opening paragraph.

17. The Wellingtonian’s handling of his published response did not amount to “abuse and manipulation”. It gave him a fair opportunity to correct or clarify his position on any of the ratings he considered had damaged his chances of election.

18. To deal briefly with other principles cited in the complaint:

The heading referred to DHB candidates, Mr Douglas considers that inaccurate because he was also standing for the Wellington City Council. The subject of the article was the heath board election alone.

The pro-fluoridation bias of the ratings was clearly stated and does not breach the Council’s principle against discrimination, which is mainly concerned with gratuitous references to the likes of race and gender.

No subterfuge or conflict of interest is established by the complainant’s view that the survey favoured candidates close to the PHA and the Ministry of Health.

The photographs were fair and the captions (candidates’ names) accurate.

The correction was quickly offered and handled fairly.

The complaint on all of the cited grounds is not u pheld.

Press Council members considering tis complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin


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