REVEREND PETER HULL AGAINST THE WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Case Number: 3344

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Supression of Fact
Headlines and Captions
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Overview

  1. On September 10, 2022, the Wairarapa Times-Age published a front-page article in its newspaper, titled:  For Sale… ‘The soul of the community’. The article was published online on September 12, with the headline: For Sale… St Francis of Assisi Church – ‘The soul of the community’.

  2. Reverend Peter Hull, the priest in charge, complains on behalf of the Vestry of the Anglican Parish of South Wairarapa that the article breaches Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle (6) Headlines and Captions. The complaint is upheld.

The Article

  1. The article outlined that St Francis of Assisi Church was being sold and its fate was to be decided at a special general meeting the next day where only parish roll votes would count. 

  2. Distraught residents said the church was the ‘’soul of the community’’ and being sold from underneath them. A petition was started to save it. Four residents were quoted and gave their views. Comments included criticisms of the sale and lack of consultation, criticisms of the vestry’s right to sell and its reasons for doing so and its motivation. One comment was that the petition was being launched to save the church from being sold ‘’for the profit of the Martinborough Vestry’’.

  3. The article included information from the meeting agenda. Reasons for the decision to begin the process of selling the church included infrequency of services, financial maintenance burden and stretched priest resource. Motions included selling the church and a 10% tithe to a Diocesan fund.  The final decision rested with the Diocesan Council and Wellington Anglican Board of Trustees.

The Complaint

  1. Rev. Hull complained on September 15, 2022, that the article failed to meet required journalism standards.

  2. Specifically, the paper failed to contact a South Wairarapa Parish Vestry representative prior to publication and there was no opposing view. As a result, the article was “grossly biased, unfair and inaccurate”.

  3. He said the headline stating the church was for sale, was false. The process for selling had started at a parish level but the final decision rested with the Anglican Diocese of Wellington Board of Trustees.

  4. The article contained numerous opinions that were untrue and deliberately misleading, including the lack of community consultation, frequency of services, costs to keep the church and omission of a third agenda motion to give 10% of sale proceeds to a local school.

  5. The vestry and many parish members were hurt and distressed by the article. A public apology was requested.


The Response

  1. The paper responded to Rev. Hull that the article previewed a meeting to be held the following day and focused on the community’s reaction to the meeting agenda, which signalled the start of the process to sell the church. Agenda details were considered the vestry’s voice in the story.

  2. The paper also referred to Media Council Principle (1) and wrote that publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance and that exceptions may apply in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report. The paper said it planned further stories with voices from both sides.

  3.  The proposed meeting was cancelled. On Monday, September 12, the paper contacted Rev. Hull seeking comment on the issue but Rev. Hull declined to comment and said the Vestry would comment once it had met.

  4.  On Tuesday, September 13, a second article reporting the meeting’s cancellation was published, quoting an email from vestry representatives that was seen by the paper.

  5.  In terms of the headline, the paper responded the print headline was:  For Sale … ‘The soul of the community’, and that the agenda stated the Vestry had decided to ‘’begin the process of selling’’ the church. The story stated its fate was likely to be decided at the meeting.  The paper was comfortable with the headline as published. The online headline was different and the paper offered to change it if the Media Council should see fit.

  6.  The paper was comfortable with the balance provided in both stories.

  7.  The article included direct quotes from several sources in the Kahutara community, including church neighbours who said they had heard nothing about the vestry’s decision on the sale process and those who had close and long associations with the church. The paper was comfortable with its sources and quotes.

  8.  Sentences were cut from the story for space reasons. The paper apologised for omitting the agenda motion that 10% of sale proceeds would be donated to Kahutara School, saying there was no intent or bias involved.


The Discussion


  1. There are two Media Council principles cited in this complaint.

  2. The first is Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which states:

  3. Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

  4. The second is Principle (6) - Headlines and Captions, which states:

  5. Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

  6. In terms of Principle (1), the article contained comments from residents that included criticisms of the sale and the church. Given that, the Wairarapa Times-Age had an obligation to put all relevant comments to the church vestry and give it a right of reply to achieve fairness and balance in its report.

  7. The paper’s defence, in its initial response to Rev. Hull, that including information from the agenda gave the vestry a voice in the article does not meet the requirements of Principle (1).

  8. As this was the first article a defence under Principle (1) does not apply.

  9. In regard to the complaint that the article contained numerous opinions that the vestry believed were untrue and deliberately misleading, the council maintains that residents had every right to express their views, whether they be right or wrong, but had those comments been put to the vestry it would have had an opportunity to respond, thus achieving a balanced report for readers to draw their own conclusions.

  10. The paper also had an obligation, in order to achieve fairness and balance, to mention the meeting agenda motion that 10% of any sale would go to a local school, given one resident’s comments about the church being sold for the ‘’profit of the Martinborough Vestry’’.

  11. The online headline complained about in this matter was: For Sale… St Francis of Assisi Church – ‘The soul of the community’.

  12. It is clear this headline is saying the church is for sale. The Vestry says that at the time of the article it was not for sale, instead a process to potentially sell it was beginning. The print headline, which omitted the church’s name and mentioned in the paper’s response, is also problematic as it still implies the church is actually for sale.

  13. Principle (6) makes clear that headlines should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

  14. The Council believes, in this instance, the online headline complained about was not accurate and could easily have been written to achieve accuracy.

Decision

The complaint is upheld on Principles (1) and (6).

Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher (Chair), Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, and Jonathan Mackenzie.

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