PORIRUA WHANAU CENTRE TRUST AGAINST PORIRUA NEWS
Porirua Whanau Centre Trust (PWCT) claims Porirua News failed to comply with Principle 1 (Accuracy, Balance and Fairness) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in relation to a story published on 12 December 2012. The story was headed “Centre Settles Dispute”.
By a majority of 7:2 the Press Council upholds the complaint.
The story related to issues two former PWCT employees, Ms To’omaga and Ms Teaurima, had with PWCT. The disputes had come before the Employment Relations Authority for determination. The story referred in some detail as to evidence Ms To’omaga and Ms Teaurima presented before the Authority. The story then described how the hearing was interrupted with the employees offering to settle with PWCT. The dispute was settled during the adjournment.
The story referred particularly to PWCT’s chief executive Ms Kelly.
PWCT says the story was unfair and unbalanced. PWCT goes further and says the story was “biased, misleading and [contained] substantial errors of fact”. PWCT says that the consequence of the story is that “PWCT and its CEO have been portrayed in an unjustifiably negative light”.
PWCT mentions statements Ms To’omaga and Ms Teaurima made during the authority’s hearing and which were reported as part of the story. PWCT says the reports portrayed Ms Kelly as a “bully” and failed to disclose the “crucial involvement” of one Litea Ah Hoi.
PWCT points particularly to the references in the story to the employees being unfairly dismissed, the reference to Ms Kelly making things “difficult” for Ms Teaurima and to other unjustifiable aggressive behavior on Ms Kelly’s part. PWCT refers also to the emphasis the story gave to the employees’ “humiliation” after having been stood down by PWCT for a period along with the emphasis on the difficulties the employees faced financially. PWCT says in fact the employees remained on full pay when stood down while complaints about their own behaviour were being investigated. PWCT also says the employees resigned from their positions. PWCT did not dismiss them.
PWCT points to the brief mention in the story about the settlement terms and to the comment that “it was not made clear whether Ms To’omaga and Ms Teaurima would receive any financial retribution”. It was obvious all the employees were being paid as a result of the settlement was their annual leave (holiday) pay and four weeks’ notice pay less amounts each owed PWCT.
When distilled down PWCT claims the story gave undue weight or emphasis to the employees’ complaints when those complaints were not finally pursued, the employees having settled with PWCT in the meantime. PWCT claims that since the matter was settled by agreement PWCT’s account, which was diametrically opposed to that of the employees, was not aired.
The Newspaper’s Response
Porirua News responds by saying that the story was balanced and fair. The editor refers to earlier stories published by the newspaper in relation to the dispute. The newspaper refers to the role Ms Ah Hoi played in assisting Ms To’omaga and Teaurima in pursuing their claims against PWCT, a role which was appropriate. The newspaper refers also to its right to publish an account of the Authority’s hearing. The editor says the story mentioned the settlement between the parties. In short the newspaper says PWCT was fairly treated.
There is little doubt the issues between PWCT on the one hand and the employees on the other were unfortunate. There were many allegations and counter allegations. There were previous stories published in Porirua News about the issues. Needless to say the background, the roles various people played and the earlier stories are not matters the Press Council comments on. The only issue is whether the 12 December 2012 story is accurate, balanced and fair.
The Council considers that it is not. The Council takes the view the story gave undue weight and attention to the employees’ unsubstantiated claims particularly as those claims related to Ms Kelly. It was not sufficient for the newspaper to devote most of the story to the employees’ claims and then to finish off the piece by referring somewhat brusquely to the settlement. The newspaper cannot avoid Principle 1 by simply reporting one sided testimony presented to a judicial or quasi-judicial body.
A statement by the editor could be taken to mean that if the Whanau Centre wanted its evidence to see the light of day it should have continued with the hearing and not settled. If this was his view it is rejected and was wrong.
The Council takes the view the newspaper could not fairly raise the question as to whether further “financial retribution” was being paid to the employees. There clearly was none.
Newspapers need to be careful when reporting proceedings of a civil nature where the proceedings finish part heard because the parties settle their differences. Often this situation will see one party having made out its case in open Court but the other side not doing so. By reporting just one side’s case the paper runs the risk of reporting in an unbalanced or unfair way. Such is the situation here.
While the Press Council appreciates there could have been local interest in this story, local interest by itself does not justify a newspaper departing from Principle 1.
The complaint is upheld by a majority.
Ms Kelly and her lawyer appeared before the Council.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.
John Roughan and Penny Harding dissented from this decision.