ROB GOULDEN AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTMr Robin Goulden, a Wellington City Councillor, complained to the Press Council about The Dominion Post’s coverage of an incident at Wellington’s Southern Landfill site, on April 4, 2005.
His complaint is not upheld.
On April 5, the newspaper reported that onlookers believed Mr Goulden had acted in a bullying and aggressive manner towards a Council employee, after losing his weigh-in docket. Under the headline, “Goulden explodes in anger over lost tip ticket”, two witnesses were quoted. They accused the Councillor of “abusive” and “arrogant” behaviour as he “harangued, bullied and intimidated the young lady in the booth”. He was “shaking his finger and fist, aggressively gesticulating” said one of the witnesses.
On April 15, The Dominion Post followed with a brief report explaining that the City Council would formally investigate the incident, apparently after requests by both Mr Goulden and a council employee. Some of the earlier claims by witnesses were repeated.
On June 3, The Dominion Post reported the results of the Wellington City Council Risk Assurance Investigation, dated May 31. The headline stated “Goulden cleared of conduct breach” and accompanied a photograph of Mr Goulden, above the caption “cleared of wrongdoing”.
Unfortunately, here the newspaper’s reporting becomes confusing because the Council’s investigation did not “clear” Mr Goulden. Examination of the surveillance camera tapes had cleared Mr Goulden of the charge that he had gesticulated and waved his fists but the Incident Report also found that he “did not treat the operator with courtesy and respect due staff”.
On June 4, the newspaper published a correction, admitting that their report of the day before was wrong in stating that the investigation had cleared Mr Goulden and that he had been found not to have treated a council employee with courtesy and respect.
Finally, on July 9 the newspaper reported that according to the Mayor, Kerry Prendergast, and Wellington Council CEO, Garry Poole, Mr Goulden had apologised to the council employee and the dispute was now resolved. The newspaper checked with Mr Goulden who confirmed meeting with the worker but denied offering any apology – because in his view, there was “nothing to apologise for”.
A letter from Mr Goulden’s lawyer detailed his complaint to the Press Council regarding The Dominion Post’s overall coverage.
In summary, the complaint is that the initial report and three subsequent articles were neither fair nor accurate nor balanced and were “heavily biased against Councillor Goulden”. Further, the reporter had paid “scant attention” to Mr Goulden’s view of the events.
Thus, the complaint traversed several of the Press Council’s Principles, especially those concerned with accuracy, fairness and balance; comment and fact; and headlines and captions.
The complaint is not upheld for the following reasons.
The complainant refers to the lead in to the first article “carloads of people ... couldn’t believe their eyes as they watched” as inflammatory. Yet that was the honestly held view of independent witnesses who seem to have been in separate cars as they watched the incident. There were several other cars at the scene. Another witness from another car, the car immediately behind Mr Goulden at the weigh-in, gave further confirmation of concern at Mr Goulden’s behaviour, during the Council’s formal investigation.
In addition, the reporter approached Mr Goulden for his view and also quoted his response. Some balance was clearly incorporated into that first report.
Balance was also provided in the second report when Mr Goulden was again approached for comment on developments and quoted. Here, a photograph of Mr Goulden was also used, with the caption “Upset by the swearing”. This helped to emphasise his side of the story.
In the third article (June 3) about the result of the Council investigation, ample space was once again devoted to Mr Goulden’s differing view. And in an eleven paragraph article on July 9, four paragraphs conveyed comment by him. The accusation that the paper gave “scant attention to his side” cannot be sustained.
The complainant might perhaps have been more appreciative of the newspaper’s error on June 3 in stating that he had been “cleared of any wrongdoing” as a result of the Council Incident Report. Certainly, and importantly no doubt, he was cleared of the suggestion he had acted in a physically threatening manner but equally clearly, the report found that he “did not treat the kiosk operator with the respect and courtesy due to staff members”.
Further, that Incident Report states that “both kiosk operators and two members of the public found Councillor Goulden to be aggressive and abusive, if not with actual words used, in his manner and tone”.
Mr Goulden would have it that The Dominion Post was inaccurate in reporting allegations that he was “aggressive and abusive” to a council worker (June 3) but the Press Council is satisfied that the article does not breach the principle of accuracy.
The headline to the first report, “Goulden explodes in anger over lost tip ticket” was emphatic but confirmed by onlookers. In the circumstances it was hardly sensational. It is also worth noting the headlines to the other articles in the sequence i.e. “Council looks at landfill incident”, “Goulden cleared of conduct breach”, and “Goulden tip row seems resolved”. They do not support the complaints about overstating the incident and inflammatory coverage.
Neither does the Press Council uphold the complaint, under the fairness principle, that the reports were given undue prominence. Given that Mr Goulden is a City Councillor and that the incident occurred at a Council site in front of members of the public, it was clearly a matter of public interest and both relevant and proper for the newspaper to report on the matter.
Finally, the complainant suggests that this is not the first time he has discovered “perceived bias” against himself in this newspaper. These reports do not, in the Press Council’s view, give weight to that suggestion.
The various complaints against The Dominion Post are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, John Gardner, Terry Snow, Keith Lees and Clive Lind.