SUSAN FRASER AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe Press Council has upheld a complaint by Benjamin Easton and others against a headline on the front of The Dominion Post that called Mr Easton "Ratepayers' enemy No 1".
The newspaper's June 30 Weekend edition disclosed that the Wellington City Council had spent $350,000 defending court actions brought against it by Mr Easton over many years. It reported that the council had taken steps to have him declared a vexatious litigant. The article carried two headlines. The first read Meet the man who’s cost a council $350,000. The second read Ratepayers’ enemy No 1. The story was continued on page five and in the editorial.
Mr Easton complained that the newspaper had "vilified" him unfairly, failed to provide a balanced report of issues he had raised and portrayed him inaccurately. Three other people, Keith Flint, Susan Fraser and Tom Reardon independently complained to the Press Council at the newspaper’s treatment of Mr Easton saying the coverage was disproportionate and unfair. They also raised concerns about the Ratepayers’ enemy No 1 headline.
Mr Easton, who told the council he lives on the street and supports himself by "political busking", said he suffered hostility and abuse after the report appeared. He considered it unfair to be labelled "Ratepayers' enemy No 1" for taking legal actions that he believed to be in the public interest.
He was particularly concerned that a bus lane in central Wellington where two people had been hit was narrower than he understood to be the minimum width required.
The editor of The Dominion Post said the June 30 articles resulted from an official information request by the paper to the Wellington City Council asking the cost of defending Mr Easton's actions. This was an entirely appropriate subject for the paper to investigate. It was also proper for the paper, as a champion of the ratepayers' interests, to advocate strongly on the issue.
The headline described Mr Easton as "Ratepayers' enemy No 1" because, the editor contended in correspondence to the Press Council, he had "incurred more council spending than any other individual" and "done more than any other individual in the city to absorb public money that would have been better spent on council services".
The Press Council found no basis for Mr Easton's complaints of inaccuracy, subterfuge and discrimination. The inaccuracy he cited, a front page photograph, may have been taken some time ago but the Council did not find its use misleading.
Mr Easton did not provide any evidence of subterfuge on the part of the reporter and the story did not contain gratuitous references to his race, gender or other personal characteristics that would breach the council's discrimination principle.
The articles were certainly strongly critical of his court actions. But in the Council's view their attitude was not unfair and was sufficiently balanced with Mr Easton's comments. These did not include all the issues that concern him, which go back several years and involved accusations that would be difficult to sustain.
However, the story did not support the headline "Ratepayers' enemy No 1". If it was a fact that he had incurred more council spending than any other individual a statement from the City Council to this effect would have been pertinent to the story. In the absence of any such corroboration the Press Council considered the headline was excessive and unfair.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.