The Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) against Mountain Scene concerning an article published on February 12, 2009.

Mountain Scene published an article about the aerial spraying of conifers on Queenstown Hill under the heading ‘Spray victims – speak out’. It reported claims by a resident that she had suffered symptoms including headaches, swollen eyes, sore throat and breathing difficulties at the time of the spraying. The article called for others who may have had similar experiences to come forward.

The article said the woman’s symptoms had started on January 19, the day of the spraying, and still affected her weeks later. She had to take two days off work and move away from her home for six nights.

The day the article appeared, QLDC contacted the newspaper to say that because of wind the spraying had not happened on 19 January, but a week later on 26 January. The council said the claims in the article were not only wrong, they were impossible. At the time of spraying the wind was blowing away from the houses on Queenstown Hill and the weedkiller was weighted with oil and there was no way spray drift could have reached her property.

In response, the newspaper published a brief article on February 19 under the heading ‘Wrong date’ saying that the date of the spraying operation had been incorrectly stated as 19 January when the operation actually took place on 26 January.

The Complaint
QLDC brought the issue to the Press Council saying the newspaper had failed to adequately correct its error or apologise, and widened its complaint to include the headline and several other matters.

It complained about the use of the plural ‘victims’ in the headline when it disputed that there were any victims at all.

It took issue with the newspaper’s failure to acknowledge the operation was a joint one between the council, the Department of Conservation and a private landowner.

QLDC also complained that the newspaper had failed to provide balance by not using information contained in a council press release and fact sheet explaining the need to spray the trees. It had failed check the facts of the story with the council or put the resident’s claim to QLDC.

In later correspondence, the council claimed that the woman mentioned in the article had contacted QLDC to say that she had not wanted to be involved in the story, but she and her employer had been pressured by the newspaper to make statements.

The Newspaper’s Response
Mountain Scene editor Garry Ferris said QLDC had used a simple typographical error involving a wrong date to suggest that the entire article was ‘a sensationalised and inaccurate beat-up’.

He acknowledged the woman was initially reluctant to have her name used in the story but, contrary to claims by the council, the woman had contacted the newspaper in the first instance, not the other way around.

He said the article was about ‘the after-effects of spraying, not the spraying operation itself or the date of it’ and the council’s complaint was evidence of an attempt to control news coverage.

The headline ‘Spray victims – speak out’ did not claim there was more than one victim; it instead reflected the woman’s call for others who may have been affected to come forward.

If other victims had come forward and turned a small story into a large story, he said the newspaper would have then sought comment from the Council. To do so earlier would have been premature.

Mountain Scene acknowledges that it got the date of the spraying wrong. It acted promptly to correct the error, but this was wholly inadequate because it then left a question mark hanging over the woman it interviewed whose symptoms, the original article said, appeared on 19 January.

The headline is ambiguous. It may be read as a call for spray victims to speak out. It may just as easily mean spray victims are speaking out.

This news story needed balance and careful checking, suggesting as it did that a local authority’s action might be to blame for causing harm to someone. The article contained alarming suggestions and QLDC was entitled to have the suggestions put to it before publication.

This complaint says much about the lack of a good working relationship between Mountain Scene and QLDC. The complaint is upheld for the reasons above, particularly lack of balance.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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