The Press Council has not upheld a complaint about coverage in The New Zealand Herald of celebrations to mark the arrival of the new Millennium at the Chatham Islands. A decision on the case was delayed for some months to allow an overseas journalist to comment on various aspects. That comment has now been received.

R.J.Clough, an elected member of the Chatham Islands Millennium Trust established to organise and coordinate celebrations there, complained variously of unfair, unbalanced and distorted reporting by a New Zealand Herald correspondent, Therese Garner and by Kathy Marks, whose report for the Independent (London), was also published in the Herald on 8 January, 2000. Mr Clough made no secret of his dismay that a great deal of hard work and sincere effort by the people of the Chatham Islands had been poorly rewarded by patronising coverage from mainland New Zealand and international media. He enclosed letters from the General Manager of the Chatham Islands Council and the Celebrations Coordinator of the Chatham Islands Millennium Trust supporting his efforts to obtain redress and reflecting what the Chatham Islands Council described as "widespread feelings of helpless anger in our community". The Press Council notes these comments with sympathy but clearly is in no position to judge whether such expectations as the Chatham Islands community may have had were justified or not. Its role is to determine whether newspapers and their staff in their coverage of such events conform to the requisite standards of ethical journalism.

The Council finds that Ms Garner's article published in the New Zealand Herald on 31 December was objective and positive, reflecting the Islanders' wariness of outsiders; the reporter admitted to an error in saying that the link with the mainland was maintained with a single-engine aircraft. A report from Ms Garner published on 1 January covered a number of events organised to mark first light and in particular carried the Islanders' wishes that their ceremonies would send a message of peace and hope to the world. (It was generally accepted world-wide that Mt Hakepa on the adjacent Pitt Island would be the first inhabited land struck by the rising sun in the new millennium.) A further report on the lead-up to and actual ceremonies held on Mt Rangaika on the main island was published on 3 January and was warm, balanced and entirely sympathetic.

Mr Clough's complaints were chiefly directed at a longer opinion piece published on 8 January and at reports that a 17-year old youth, whose role was to blow a conch-shell trumpet at the dawn ceremonies on Mt Rangaika, was drunk and incapable when the moment came. Mr Clough complained vigorously and correctly that the young man in fact did what was asked of him; the conch-shell trumpet was duly blown as the sun came up. Mr Clough provided video footage of the event which made that quite clear.) The New Zealand Herald report of 3 January names the youth and says that he welcomed the dawn by blowing into a conch. A report from Kathy Marks, the correspondent of the Independent (London) also published in the New Zealand Herald on 8 January, says that he was "alleged to be so inebriated by the time the sun rose that it was unclear whether he was going to blow the giant shell or vomit into it".

The Sunday Star Times on 1 January also carried a major story on this incident, balancing a report from the New Zealand correspondent of The Australian that the young man (named) had been "completely drunk" before sunrise and therefore unable to pose for further photographs, with the explanation that it was not part of the programme for him to change back into traditional dress for further photographs. (Mr Clough has not lodged a complaint against theSunday Star-Times.)

The Press Council treats this incident seriously because it is an important principle that particular care be taken in reporting on children and young people. Ms Garner's coverage of the affair in her article of 8 January does not square with Mr Clough's explanation. Yet she does not name the young man in this context and is tolerant of "his nerves and the resulting embarrassment".

The Press Council accordingly does not uphold Mr Clough's complaints about Ms Garner's reporting. Nor does the Council find fault with other aspects of The Herald''s coverage of the Chathams Millennium events. The negative aspects of Ms Garner's piece of 8 January are offset in a Letter to the Editor, published prominently, and by a number of other reports and pictures about issues and developments on the Islands around the Millennium.

As for the article by Kathy Marks, the Council is at something of a loss. Her piece is so plainly for consumption by a distant London readership - and is indeed labelled as such ( "a very British Empire look…") - that it is difficult to put it into the New Zealand context.

The Press Council cannot weigh the views of visiting journalists against the presumptions of local inhabitants as to what is or is not fair and balanced reporting in cases of this kind. The Chatham Islanders may have had good cause to be irritated that visiting reporters did not come to terms with the merits and strengths of their community; in the same way the visitors could not have been expected to operate on the same wave-length as their hosts. The Press Council's role is to judge whether appropriate journalistic standards have been maintained. In this case it can find no fault in the reporting of The New Zealand Herald.

The complaint is not upheld.


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