ROB PATERSON AGAINST THE WEEKEND SUN

Case Number: 2901

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Weekend Sun

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Rob Paterson complains about perceived unfairness in the letters to the editor column of the Tauranga based, community newspaper,The Weekend Sun. He argues that the editor published a letter that exceeded the paper’s 200 word limit on the letters’ page and that another letter was published after a topic of debate had been closed.

The complainant makes his complaint under two New Zealand Media Council Principles, namely Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 5, Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters.

Background

The complaint comes after the weekly community newspaper reported on the events surrounding the return of a small parcel of land in Tauranga to local iwi. The land in question was bought by Tauranga District Council and subsequently returned to Otamataha Trust in 2019.

The land on Mission Street is adjacent to an historic mission house called The Elms. Under the terms of the deal the land would be leased back to the trust for a peppercorn rental of $1 per annum and a requirement that it be used as part of an on-going development at The Elms.

The decision to return the land was not welcomed by some in the community who challenged the council’s thinking about gifting a piece of land to Maori bought by the city’s ratepayers.The debate, and the issues surrounding it, was widely reported by several media outlets throughout 2019.

The Complaint

Mr Paterson says it was unfair to publish a letter of “nearly 500 words” when the newspaper had a “strict policy” that “letters in excess of 200 words would not be published or will be edited to comply”. He complains that letter writer Buddy Mikaere was given “nearly 500 words to air his views on a very contentious matter yet the other side of the argument is not given the same latitude.”

He says that was neither fair or balanced and demonstrated bias by the newspaper.

He also complains that a letter supporting Mr Mikaere was published five days after the editor closed correspondence on the topic.

Overall, Mr Paterson believes Mr Mikaere was given “special preferential treatment” which was at odds with the Media Council’s Principle 5, which states, in part:Letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance, and public interest. Abridgement is acceptable but should not distort meaning.

When an editor applies discretion Mr Paterson said it “needs to be exercised in a fair, responsible, even handed and balanced manner”.

He said his solution was for the editor to allow himself (Mr Paterson) or a writer of his nomination to script a letter of similar length, but this was “summarily dismissed and ignored by the editor”.

Finally, citing Principle 1, the complainant said it was his opinion that Mr Mikaere “had a history of inaccuracies” citing a previous Media Council ruling and a retraction in another newspaper.

The Response

Weekend Sun editor, Daniel Hutchinson said the paper gives preference to letters under 200 words but “as editor I do have discretion to allow more if I feel it is in the public’s best interest, particularly in regards to balance”.

He said he allowed the longer letter because the paper had received and run a lot of correspondence from opponents of the Mission Street transaction and Mr Mikaere was responding to common threads in several of those letters.

Over a period of about six months many writers opposing the transaction had been published but the paper had received “very few” letters from local Maori.

“While it is true that I prefer shorter letters, in this case a longer letter was useful to readers because it allowed a response to several points and that has been lacking in the debate so far”.

Mr Hutchinson said longer letters are not explicitly banned but he did not want everyone writing 500 word letters, “especially organised letter writing groups that have already had ample room to share their views”.

The editor said the paper was under no obligation to further the political or social agenda of any particular group.

The Decision

The thrust of the complaint will be considered under Principle 5.With regard to letters, Principle 5 clearly states that: letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance, and public interest.

The over-arching theme of the complaint is about unfairness, at least in the eyes of the complainant.The heart of the complaint is that a letter on a contentious and long running issue was printed at roughly twice the length of other published letters.

Mr Paterson also complained that a letter supporting Mr Mikaere’s stance was published after the editor closed correspondence on the issue of the Mission Street transaction.

It is obvious to the Council that in this instance the editor has been guided by the tenets of Principle 5.

The Council does not accept Mr Paterson’s argument that he or his cohorts are entitled to respond to Mr Mikaere’s letter with a letter of their own of a similar size.

The editor has made it clear that those opposed to the transaction have had their views aired for a considerable time in the columns ofThe Weekend Sun.

Publishing a longer letter with an opposing view allowed the newspaper to provide the readership with a full range of views on a complex and contentious issue.

The Council also believes that allowing a letter to be published after a topic has been closed is the prerogative of the editor.

A healthy letters column is a dynamic space that is not well served by rigid constraints.

An editor has considerable discretion over letters submitted for publication, especially when deciding whether to publish a letter, publish an abbreviated version or to decline publication. The same applies to a decision to declare correspondence closed or open again.

Decision

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan Mackenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain the public member majority.