Case Number: 2594

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Decision: Upheld in Part with Dissent

Publication: Akaroa Mail

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage


[1] Health charity and ambulance provider St John has complained about an article published inThe Akaroa Mail on March 10, 2017, headlined Akaroa ambulance crisis – Don’t panic!.

[2] The article is based on an interview with local doctor Alex Shaw and concerns about changes to the service St John provides in Akaroa. It’s written by editor Michael de Hamel. Alongside it,The Mail has run part of a statement by St John, headlined ‘Alternative Facts’ from St John.

The Complaint

[3] St John’s South Island Area Committee Relationship Manager, Ian Henderson, has complained the article contains “many incorrect facts” and “is without research, balance accuracy or truth” that the reporter “showed a total lack of regard for the truth”. He complains that the article fails under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4, Comment and Fact; and Principle 12, Corrections.

[4] The complaint is broken down into a series of points, starting with the claim that St John did not get an opportunity to provide its version of events. Henderson says, “at no point in the emails between St John andThe Akaroa Mail did The Akaroa Mail indicate that there would be a story published of this size or containing such damaging allegations”.

[5] The reporter showed “a total lack of regard for the truth… [which] extended to the incorrect spelling of our name St Johns with an ’s’ throughout”.

[6] The information St John did provide in good faith was published with the heading‘Alternative facts’ from St John, demeaning its answers. St John was not told its answers would be included alongside the article.

[7] Henderson supplied “work volume” data that from October 1 to February 1 there are on average 26 cases in or around Akaroa, compared to 13 cases a month during the rest of the year. While he does not explain what these cases are, Henderson argues it shows their volume is “extremely low”, so on the days St John could not raise coverage “there was very little impact on the community that could not have been attended to by PRIME [ACC funded) doctors or a Christchurch-based ambulance”. He says de Hamel was given this data.

[8] Henderson then itemises specific parts of the story he says are inaccurate, starting with the article’s claim that there is a “lack of ambulance and first response paramedic service in and around Akaroa”. He argues that St John provided staff from Christchurch, while PRIME GPs and a rescue helicopter are available if needed.

[9] The article reports “at many times there is no-one on the roster, let alone anyone trained to provide emergency medical assistance”. Henderson says occasionally the roster is not filled, but St John provides cover from Christchurch. From late December to late January full-time coverage was offered when a Ministry of Education house became available in Akaroa, and he again points to support from GPs and the rescue helicopter.

[10] The article says St John replaced a van bought by Lions and housed at the fire station with an ambulance, but Henderson says that’s untrue. He says the van was bought without consultation and was not fit for purpose, so it was “upgraded” to a $180,000 ambulance.

[11] Where the story says “Akaroa was left without a local service” because ambulances were sometimes being asked to take patients right into Christchurch, Henderson says GPs contracted by ACC to attend emergencies were available.

[12] The report says in December ambulance volunteers quit, concerned the workload was dangerous. St John continued coverage from Christchurch and began recruiting and training new volunteers, “but from February 6 St Johns [sic] ceased its regular coverage in Akaroa”. Henderson confirms coverage was from Christchurch and during that time volunteers were being recruited and trained, but he insists it’s wrong to conclude that meant regular coverage in Akaroa had ceased.

[13] At one incident the previous weekend, two French tourists had driven off the road. The story quotes Akaroa medic Dr Alex Shaw saying a St John recruit turned up but couldn’t help clinically. Henderson says the volunteer was “first aid qualified” and could have helped, but the doctor didn’t allow it.

[14] Shaw described another traffic incident, on French Farm Rd, the same weekend, saying it was lucky there was space where the rescue helicopter could land nearby. “If there hadn’t been that we wouldn’t have been able to transport any patients to the helicopter”, because St John couldn’t raise a driver. Henderson says an ambulance did attend from Christchurch and could have transported the patient if required.

[15] A third incident involved a hang-glider crash. “First response was provided by the Little River Fire Brigade which turned up with ropes and clinically-trained people”. But Henderson says this description overstates their skill, “making them sound as if they are more clinically advanced than our volunteers”.

[16] The newspaper quotes Dr Shaw saying local clinicians had raised concerns with St John but not had “a serious response”, going on to say “we haven’t been able to have any discussion with St Johns” or any “constructive dialogue”. Henderson says meetings have been held, adding that other offers to meet have been declined. The clinicians have been “contemptuous and insulting”.

[17] Henderson is also outraged that Shaw claims St John seems “to be more interested in their ‘brand’ than patient safety”. They were not asked to respond directly to that claim.

[18] Shaw is reported saying the local clinicians believe the problem would be solved if the fire brigade took over as first responders, as they have five trained people and more keen to join. Henderson argues this would contradict a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding between St John and the NZ Fire Service. de Hamel had been told NZFS management did not want that. Henderson adds that St John also has five trained volunteers, “so where is the difference?”

[19] Finally, the article describes the van replaced by the ambulance as having been “taken over by St John”. Henderson says again that it was upgraded to be fit for purpose.

The Response

[20] The Akaroa Mail editor – and the writer of the article – Michael de Hamel, says St John’s complaint is “a case of shoot the messenger”, and a “blunderbuss attack” at that, “shooting assertions at all possible targets”. His article is critical of St John, but true, he says.

[21] Unhelpfully, de Hamel says he does not have time to address each of St John’s complaints but instead offers “background” and veers into issues not covered in the article and conjecture. However the Council will seek to match his background to St John’s complaints.

[22] First, de Hamel says that contrary to claims St John did not get the chance to reply to assertions, he rang and/or emailed three St John representatives, including Henderson, starting on February 28. Henderson only replied on or after March 2 (de Hamel is not clear). He says “despite specific questioning” he got two short statements that did not address some of his questions. He was “not able to get an interview”.

[23] Even after the story, de Hamel says he has continued to seek answers from St John, following up “again and again”.

[24] de Hamel admits occasionally putting an ’s’ on the end of St John, but says sometimes that was in a quote from Dr Shaw and he corrected it in the next edition.

[25] The editor defends his use of the headline ‘Alternative Facts’ from St John in part because St John’s reply did not answer his questions in any depth and he doubted some of its accuracy. As an example, he says St John claimed it was providing care for the community “as we have always done”. de Hamel says St John has only served Akaroa for “about 20 years”, compared with his newspaper which has served for 141 years.

[26] The article did not discuss St John’s work volume, so there is nothing to correct on that point, de Hamel writes.

[27] The Akaroa Mail stands by its claim there was a lack of services in Akaroa over the summer. At the time of the story, the editor says, St John’s placement of staff from Christchurch in the township had “largely ceased”. He says Henderson in his complaint actually confirms the story’s core concern that at times St John services have not been available from “in and around Akaroa” as they had before. The township has instead been dependent on St John services from Christchurch, local GPs and the fire brigade, and that’s what worried the local clinicians.

[28] Where Henderson argues the van was not replaced with an ambulance, de Hamel says that’s exactly what his complaint confirms. He says Henderson confirms the van “was taken away and another vehicle was substituted. Isn’t that replacement?” de Hamel also claims St John was consulted over the van and that some locals believe the Mercedes ambulance amounts to a “downgrade” because the 4WD van was better suited to Banks Peninsula conditions. “Replacement” is neutral, he says.

[29] The editor supplies two letters from Akaroa doctors – one to St John and one to local MP Amy Adams – in which they complain St John is not listening to their concerns for the public’s safety. The letter to St John describes the doctors’ version of the three incidents on the weekend of March 3-5. It is in line with the article. de Hamel says that the article’s discussion of those events was clearly attributed to Dr Shaw and amounted to “factual reporting of Dr Shaw’s opinions”, based on the letter and an interview.

[30] On Henderson’s claim that there’s no difference between the five NZFS volunteers and the five St John volunteers, de Hamel argues that at the time the story was published the five St John volunteers in Akaroa had not done their First Response training. “They were recruits, with just bare first aid training. No wonder that one was ‘forbidden to assist’ with a technical procedure by the GP present at a serious accident scene”. The NZFS volunteers did have First Response training.

[31] Finally, de Hamel says he has been happy to publish corrections of any facts shown to be wrong; “I just cannot correct something that isn’t wrong”. He has also published all letters to the editor on the matter, including two from Henderson. One of these is the Press Council complaint and took almost a full page of the newspaper.

[32] Above that letter, an editor’s note responds, amongst other things, to Henderson’s argument that using the fire brigade as first responders would contravene an MoU between St John and the NZFS. In it, de Hamel says that was a suggested solution by local doctors and the MoU could be renegotiated.

The Discussion

[33] To start, both parties to this complaint have done themselves no favours by taking a scattergun approach. St John claims some parts of the article are inaccurate, when it’s clear they simply don’t like the criticism and the way the story has been angled. Equally, The Akaroa Mail has been less than precise in some parts of the article and the editor’s response has not addressed the complaint – however much of a blunderbuss attack it may be – in a methodical manner.

[34] While St John does not like The Mail’s view that coverage from Christchurch amounts to a lack of coverage that is a reasonable interpretation of the facts. Indeed, asThe Mail indicates at the start, the story is based on an interpretation of the facts supplied by a local doctor.

[35] St John admits “there are occasions when the roster is not filled” and, as de Hamel writes, the complaint actually confirmsThe Mail’s claim that there was a “lack of ambulance and first response paramedic service in and around Akaroa”. The Council (and indeedThe Mail) accepts there was relief cover in Akaroa for a month, from St John in Christchurch, plus local GPs and a rescue helicopter. But that does not contradictThe Mail’s concern about a lack of specific services in a specific location at a specific time.

[36] St John clearly interprets The Mail’s use of the word “service” as medical services as provided by PRIME GPs, Christchurch St John and the rescue helicopter, whereasThe Mail is clearly using the word to describe ambulance services in and near to Akaroa. Readers will understand it is the latter that the article is about.

[37] Similarly, discussion of the van is not a dispute over fact, but over interpretation. St John suggests the story lacked sufficient detail about the substitution of the van with the ambulance. But that does not make it inaccurate forThe Mail to say the van was “replaced”.

[38] Again, the complaints about the description of the Little River fire brigade, using the fire brigade as first responders and St John’s interest in patient safety are all matters of opinion the organisation disagrees with, not inaccuracies. In two of those instances, they are the opinions of Dr Shaw and The Mail has every right to report his views. St John is not immune to criticism.

[39] It seems St John is simply wrong in its complaint that the local fire brigade has “five already-trained first responders”. It argues there is no difference between them and the five St John volunteers, but in its own statement it says that those five volunteers weren’t due to start their First Responder training until March 13, three days after the story was run and 10 days after the weekend discussed inThe Mail.

[40] While there is a dispute between Shaw and St John as to just how much they have talked about the doctors’ concerns,The Mail has presented Shaw’s complaint about a lack of discussions as a quote; Dr Shaw is entitled to his view. While it would have been better forThe Mail to have reported (then or later) St John’s claim that it is the doctors who have declined to meet, the Council notes thatThe Mail says it has approached St John “again and again” for comment without success. Contrary to St John’s complaints it never had the chance to respond, it seems numerous approaches were made before and after the article complained against. The Council notes that when a newspaper asks questions it does not have to explain how or where in the newspaper it intends to use the answers. Further, a newspaper cannot correct inaccuracies if a complainant is not willing to engage.

[41] The Akaroa Mail also printed two letters to the editor from St John expressing its concerns. Thereforethe complaint against Principle 12 is not upheld.

[42] Another disputed fact is whether an ambulance did attend the French Farm Rd crash or not, but the Council does not have sufficient evidence to know what exactly happened there. Similarly, it’s unclear whether the St John volunteer couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to help at the French tourists’ crash, but the point is immaterial to the substance of the story.

[43] The Mail did, clearly, erroneously add an ‘s’ to the end of St John’s name at times, however it did correct that, albeit in a snarky manner. Either way, it is a minor error that does not amount to a breach of principles. There are no substantive errors of fact in the article.

[44] The Council notes that the story was written in an unusual manner, most notably separating St John’s comments into a separate article. While that’s risky, St John does still have a right of reply and the coverage clearly is news, not opinion.

[45] Putting that point together with St John’s failure to prove inaccuracies in the story, the complaints against Principle 1 and Principle 4 are not upheld.

[46] That leaves us with the headline, ‘Alternative facts’ from St John. Those two words are heavily loaded at the moment, given their recent emergence into popular culture after they were used by an advisor to President Donald Trump in January. They were used to defend what the interviewer at the time called “a provable falsehood”. The use of the phrase was widely mocked and is associated with deceit.

[47] Under Principle 1, the Council requires newspapers to give opposing views “a fair voice”. Regardless of whether St John’s reply addressed the questions asked, it was entitled to a fair hearing. This headline instead implies that the organisation was trying to deceive readers and therefore a complaint against the second story headline under Principle 1 is upheld.

Two members of the Press Council, John Roughan and Hank Schouten would not have upheld the complaint about the headline.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens stood down to maintain the public member majority.


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