PORIRUA CITY COUNCIL AGAINST THE DOMINION POST / KAPI-MANA NEWS AND STUFF

Case Number: 2813

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Bias
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. This is a complaint by Porirua City Council that reportage breached Media Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; comment and fact; and headlines and captions.

Background

2.The Dominion Post and Stuff published a story on June 13, 2019 reporting that beachfront land in Titahi Bay was sold to the Porirua City Council so that it could be used by the public, but designs shown to councillors in a closed-door session had detailed options for developing apartments. The story was published on Stuff under the headlinedResidents ‘misled’, family disappointed by Porirua City Council Titahi Bay plans.

3. A few days later a follow-up story reported the council’s chief executive saying detailed drawings of apartment blocks on the land, which had been prepared for the council, were concepts and a desktop exercise which had been considered at a closed-door council workshop. These were not shown to the public at a subsequent public consultation on use of the land but only released after the documents were requested under an official information request. The stories were also reported in the Kapi-Mana News.

The Complaint

4. Porirua City Council complained that the stories focussed on alleged development plans when no such plans were being considered. Concept plans presented at a council workshop the previous year were prepared as an example of how the site could be used. These were not development plans.

5. Reference to “plans given in closed door sessions” gave the impression the council had acted with secrecy and deceit when it was just a regular council workshop.

6.Comments by the Nixon family (who had sold the land to the council) were presented as fact, which made the council look like it was reneging on a promise that did not exist.

7. Comment that the council had already made moves to determine their preferred option was not fact and presented the council as acting in an underhand way.

8. Repeating that the concepts were considered at a closed door meeting on June 14, with no year given, implied this happened the previous week. This suggested these were current plans when in fact they were concepts that had been rejected at the workshop, which had been held a year earlier.

9. Other elements of the story showed bias and the headlines were inaccurate and biased.

10. Little of the information available on the council’s website had been used and staff never had the opportunity to provide facts and give balance to some of the allegations.

The Response

11. Stuff Wellington news director Marcus Stickley said that in general Stuff dismissed every aspect of the complaint which seemed to be based on the council not liking what had been reported.

12. The council had mis-characterised the reporting of community reaction to the public consultation on the Titahi Bay land it bought from the Nixon family.Any confusion in the community was due to the way the council had acted over this issue.

13. The council’s main complaint, that there were inaccuracies in reporting on the architectural/concept drawings/ plans/ designs was difficult to understand. They existed, they had been produced for the council as reported and the plans were never presented as anything other than what they were.

14. As for balance, the mayor and staff were given ample time and opportunity to state their position for both stories. The mayor had every right to speak for the council and did so openly for both articles.

15. The first story was about the confusion around what the council’s plans were for the site. Reporters were alerted to the existence of the drawings by concerned residents who felt the council had not been transparent with them. The story included the mayor‘s explanation that the designs were “concepts” and an apology for the inference that something was going ahead.

16. Reporting that the plans had been given in a closed-door sessions of council accurately reflected the fact that it was a council workshop from which the public were excluded.

17. Comment by the Nixon family was clearly presented as the opinion of Simon Nixon, whose mother had sold the land to the council between 2008 and 2013. He said she had an aversion to developers and it had never occurred to her that council might suddenly decide to develop it.This was backed up by other sources including Porirua deputy mayor Liz Kelly who told Stuff in 2012 that “once valuable land like this has been sold and developed, it’s lost to the community forever.”

18. Comment that the council was acting in an underhand way and already had its preferred option was the opinion expressed by a council candidate.

19. When council mentioned that it had an issue with the way the date of the workshop was presented in the story, the story was updated and clarifying statement was added.

20. The headlines used were factual. Residents said they did feel misled; the family who sold the land were disappointed to know that the council had commissioned concept drawings and the approach it was taking to public consultation; designs were commissioned by the council for land that people in the community thought had been saved for public use.

21. Reporters had reviewed information on the council website and other information provided by the council and this had provided background to writing the story. Council documents and other sources were fairly reported.

22. The second article was commissioned as an act of goodwill to allow the council chief executive and mayor space to stress that no decision had been made about the land.

The Decision

23. Key elements of this complaint relate to the definition of the word “plan” and whether anything improper is suggested by the term “closed door session”.

24. There is no dispute that the council commissioned architects to look at various options for developing the waterfront land. This “desktop exercise” included drawings which were presented to a council workshop in 2018.

25. Even if they are only concepts such drawings are commonly referred to as plans, as they were in this story. The council statement that it has not proceeded with or is not considering a development plan does not belie the fact that it has a drawing or document which can be fairly described as a plan.

26. The Media Council also sees nothing inappropriate with the reference to “plans given in closed door sessions”. Local bodies regularly hold workshops from which the public are excluded. It is not unfair to call them closed door sessions.

27. Comments by Simon Nixon as to his mother’s understanding when the land was sold were a matter of opinion which could be fairly reported even if, as the council insists, no promise was made. However, the first article could have been better worded by reporting there was no evidence of a written undertaking that the land would not be developed.

28. Other comments made in the reports, which cast doubt on the council’s actions, were also the views of those who were quoted. Members of the community are entitled to express their criticisms of a local council.

29. As for balance the council was given the opportunity to respond to points made and the mayor’s comment was included in both stories. The Media Council does not agree with the council communication manager view that council officers should have been contacted as elected members could not be expected to answer questions about detailed operational matters. The mayor is the political leader of the council and could reasonably be expected to speak on its behalf on issues of importance to his community. He acknowledged in the first story that the council should have been more transparent and responsive.

30. The second story, published on June 18, was in error when it reported the concepts were considered at a closed door meeting on June 14, when that meeting had taken place a year earlier. The incorrect dating was unfortunate and a correction was made when this error was pointed out by the council.

31. The council may not have agreed with what was reported but has not raised convincing arguments that the stories were inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced. Headlines also fairly conveyed key elements of the stories.The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.