The Press Council has not upheld a complaint against the Sunday Star-Times following a report of incidents in the student leaders’ offices at Victoria University, Wellington.

On May 6, 2007, the Sunday Star-Times carried a report which said Victoria University student leaders had vandalised the walls of their offices after drinking and that thousands of dollars of calls had been made to a psychic hotline. The report was headed “Uni seeks costs of psychic calls by drunk student.” The report quoted what it described as a report on the student union’s website Salient.
On May 7 Laura McQuillan, the news editor of Salient and author of some of the material on the website, e-mailed the newspaper complaining of inaccuracies in the report and on the following day requested an interview with the editor who declined.
Further correspondence followed and in a letter of May 18 the Star-Times editor, while not accepting that the report was inaccurate in its key claims, offered the opportunity of a letter to the editor clarifying details. The student representatives were unsatisfied with the editor’s responses and lodged a formal complaint with the Press Council on May 28.

The Complaint
The complaint from Laura McQuillan and Geoff Hayward, President of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association, said that the report had cast VUWSA and Salient into disrepute. It said the headline and report were inaccurate in reporting that the university was attempting to retrieve the money when it was VUWSA which was doing so. The thousands of dollars spent on psychic hotline calls were not made in one night and it was not reported that the student making the calls was a co-opted official rather than having been elected.
It further complained that information in the report was stated as coming from the student union website rather than the website of Salient magazine which is the student magazine funded by VUWSA, a separate body to the student union.
The complainants objected to the description of those involved as student executives when their correct title should be officers of the Students’ Association executive. The description of the graffiti referred to the use of the word “hearts” when it actually showed a picture of a heart.
The newspaper had not printed a correction or apology. The complainants also complained under principle 6 on ‘comment and fact” saying that the report appeared to be based on an opinion column written in Salient by Ms McQuillan which did not claim to be a complete or objective piece of reporting.
By suggesting that the Star-Times report was based on copy in Salient the newspaper had discredited the Salient as a reputable news organisation.

The Newspaper’s Response.
The editor stood by the suggestion that the University was working alongside the students association in attempting to retrieve the money and referred to another Salient report which said “the Association was working with the university” to have the costs of the phone calls added to the student’s records.
On the question of whether the calls amounting to thousands of dollars were made on one night the newspaper had information from other sources that this was the case and believed at the time of publication that information was correct.
The newspaper did not believe the status of the student officer’s appointment, the exact nature of Salient and the description of members of the VUWSA executive as student executives were crucially important.
The newspaper did not rely entirely on Salient for its information. It had a copy of a report on the incident from a separate source.
The newspaper described the suggestion that the report rather than the incident itself had cast the VUWSA into disrepute as “laughable” and said no apology was required. Ms McQuillan had been given an opportunity to clarify the report and had not accepted this offer.

Further responses.
The complainants were unsatisfied by the response, reiterated the complaints and took exception to the remark in connection with the co-opted status of the officer that “the distinction seemed to be of no relevance to our readers so was not reported”. The complainants summed up the newspaper’s response as: “if our readers don’t want or need the facts we don’t have to report them”
In its final response the newspaper took particular issue with this remark, which it described as an invention of the newspaper’s position. The position was that the report as published was an accurate summary of the key events.

There is no suggestion that the main material of the report is incorrect. There was drinking, calls were made to a psychic hotline and the premises were subjected to the writing of graffiti. The offending student was an officer, whether co-opted or elected. It is difficult to see that making the distinctions sought by the complainants would have significantly ameliorated the damage to the reputation of the student body. The expansions of detail sought by the complainants were not substantial, not because “readers don’t want them” but because they do not affect the major content of the report.
Had the complainants accepted the offer of a letter of clarification on these details they would have been able to make the position clear.
On the matter of who was involved in attempts to seek reparation it is unclear from the correspondence of the exact nature of the university’s role. One report in Salient by Ms McQuillan says “the VUWSA is currently working with the University” on cost recovery and in further correspondence the complainant suggests that certain action by the university in having a “hold” placed on the concerned student’s record account would hinder the process. This suggests that, regardless of the effectiveness of any such action, VUWSA is not alone in seeking to act on the matter.

The matters of detail on which the report is faulted by the complainant are insufficient to sustain a finding that the report is inaccurate. The headline reflects the material in the report and it seems the university is involved at some level in the recovery of the money spent on the calls.
There is therefore no requirement for an apology although it would have been within the newspaper’s powers to correct the matters of detail, whether or not the complainants accepted the offer of a letter to the editor. Publication of such a correction would not have significantly altered the substance of the report.
There is no editorial comment in the report and therefore the complaint on this ground cannot be sustained.
The complaints are not upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.


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