PETER BENNETT AGAINST THE PRESSPeter Bennett, a Westland District Councillor and real estate agent, complains that a Press article about himself, headed “Council land deal ‘no secret’” (16.5.03), is “inaccurate, unethical, misleading, sensationalist and defamatory”, and has damaged his reputation. For the following reasons the complaint is not upheld.
The article, by reporter Paul Madgwick, is about the conflict of interest involved in a Franz Josef land deal that Bennett brokered and which the council subsequently gave consent to. The conflict of interest itself is not in dispute; rather, the issue is how it was handled.
Bennett writes that the property deal arose on two occasions before the Westland Council. In the first instance (1.4.03) he had not declared his interest but, “in the clear knowledge that every councillor was aware I was the agent acting for [the party]”, and had taken no part in either discussion or voting. At a second meeting (24.4.03), he had declared the conflict before again taking no part in discussion or voting.
Also not in dispute are errors in the Press article. A correction of 3.7.03 makes it clear that the newspaper had been wrong in asserting Bennett had signed the sale and purchase agreement for the property; and in stating that he had approved the deal as a councillor.
Bennett points also to a third error: an assertion that the council’s rules require anyone with a conflict of interest to leave the room. The Westland Council, he says, has no such requirement. The only clear identification of rule breach comes from Auditor-General Office solicitor Edrick Child: he reports that councillors have a “clear duty” under the Local Authorities Members Interests Act to declare their interests. Though refraining from commenting on the Bennett case, Child adds that breaches of this duty are “potentially a criminal offence”.
Unhappy with the brevity and scope of the newspaper’s correction – printed in a briefs’ column headed “clarification” - Bennett calls for an explicit apology.
In response, Press editor Paul Thompson says that the correction was of the “standard sort” used by the paper and likely to have been well read. He says that an outright apology at a time Bennett was threatening legal action could have had legal consequences; and that, as a politician, Bennett had to expect “rigorous scrutiny and the rough and tumble that goes with the job”.
The core part of the reporting, he says, was valid: that Bennett did not handle the conflict of interest with scrupulous care; that he had not consistently made the conflict known at the meetings; and that he did not absent himself when it was discussed.
“An apology would have wrongly suggested we were comprehensively wrong in reporting those facts,” he says.
There can be little question that Bennett acted unwisely in not explicitly declaring his interest (at the first meeting) and in not leaving the room (at both meetings) for the duration of the property discussions. As the Auditor-General’s office points out, failure to declare represents a clear breach of duty.
It is unfortunate that The Press article contained factual errors; errors dealt with rather ineffectually under the somewhat reluctant heading, “clarifications”. But in reporting a procedural breach it reasonably led its article with the side of the councillor in question. On balance, the Press Council finds that the breach was fairly highlighted.
The complaint is not upheld.