ROBERT WELCH AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESThe Press Council at its meeting of 24 June 2002 established a fast track procedure for dealing with complaints arising out of the general election. A decision of the Press Council weeks after an election is little use to a complainant. The following falls squarely within a complaint that needs to be dealt with on the fast track.
The Waikato Times published on 3 July 2002 a front-page panel “ON THE STUMP” which is the usual newspaper election-time take on lighter, human interest stories from the campaign, with some attempt at humour. In this issue it referred to postcards distributed by Dianne Yates, the Labour candidate for Hamilton East, that featured her slogan “… working for you, working for Hamilton”. The article commented “Nice sentiment but slightly undermined by the accompanying picture of Ms Yates relaxing with a glass of wine.” The panel of election snippets in which this was the lead item was headed bluntly “Yates undoes her work when she wines”.
Robert Welch, Chairman Hamilton East Labour Electorate Committee, has laid a complaint with the Press Council alleging “the headline and text suggests that Dianne Yates … drinks alcohol (specifically wine) to the extent that it affects her work.” He says he has known Dianne Yates for several years and that she is extremely careful and considerate in her drinking on social occasions. He states on the occasion represented by the photograph Ms Yates was drinking orange juice. A copy of the postcard was made available to the Press Council, but even on very close examination it is not possible to conclude categorically what is contained in the glass in Ms Yates’s hand. Apparently the photograph was taken on the occasion of the Lord of the Rings Parliamentary reception. On a phone call to the Waikato Times by Ms Yates herself by way of complaint she said, according to the editor’s letter to the Council “ … she almost always drank orange juice.” In a statement to the Press Council Ms Yates says that her recall is that it was in fact orange juice. In these circumstances the Council is unable to make a definitive finding of fact as to what liquid the glass contained.
The photograph of the candidate (Ms Yates) standing alongside the leader of her party and current Prime Minister, within the context of the wording on the postcard referred to above is very conventional political advertising. The Council thinks the interpretation placed on the postcard by the article that it undermines the message of hard work for the electorate because Ms Yates is “relaxing with a glass of wine” is unwarranted. Only the clearest evidence that the glass contained wine could carry such an inference and that is not claimed by the editor in response to this complaint.
The editor defended the article and the headline as lighthearted lampooning of the kind that readers enjoyed at election time. The article, taken on its own, is unfair for the reason stated above. The headline, " Yates undoes her work when she wines", is much more damaging. It implies that the value of the MP's work is negated by what happens when she drinks wine. This is a much more sweeping allegation than what is said in the article itself, and stands unqualified, and that it was wine is an assumption, not an established fact. Such a potentially damaging allegation cannot be passed off as lighthearted humour in the heightened sensitivity of a political campaign.
The Council upholds the complaint.