TANIA NEWMAN AGAINST WESTPORT NEWS

Case Number: 2899

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Westport News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Behaviour of Journalists
Privacy

Overview

1. A complaint that a story - in which the owner of a local tavern denied that it had been sold to a gang - had breached Media Council principles relating to Accuracy, fairness and balance; Privacy and Comment and fact.

The Complaint

2. Tania Newman, an owner of Pines Tavern in Westport complained about the publication of a brief article in the Westport News on March 5, 2020 which reported her saying that rumours her tavern had been sold to a gang were untrue. It also reported the tavern was still on the market and quoted her as saying she would not consider selling it to a gang.

3. She said the reporter had rung her a few weeks earlier and had suggested that an article in the paper would allay the rumour. Ms Newman said she had expressly forbidden that, had asked for nothing to be published and expected this to be honoured. But about three weeks later the item appeared on the front page of the paper.

4. This was a breach of her privacy as well as a breach of trust and that this unsolicited article had endangered her. Gangs were looking to purchase pubs on the coast and she did not know how they would take this article. This story was not factual reporting but rumour-mongering and the paper had acted out of the normal realms of fairness.

The Response

5. Westport News editor/owner Lee Scanlon said Ms Newman’s comments had been reported accurately.

6. She acknowledged Ms Newman had told the reporter that a story to allay the rumour was not necessary. But at no stage did Ms Newman “forbid” a story or complain the paper was breaching her privacy. The fact her tavern was for sale was not private information. She had spoken at length about it for a feature published in the paper several weeks earlier.

7. “We are at a loss to see how publication of the story could endanger Ms Newman. The story did not mix comment and fact, or breach the principles of fairness and balance.”

8. Rather than defaming Ms Newman, the story portrayed her in a positive light that accurately reported her comment that she would not consider selling to a gang because her pub was the hub of her community.

The Decision

9. It is clear in this complaint that Ms Newman and the Westport News have differing understandings as to what may have been agreed when the reporter called and discussed the rumoured sale.

10.The Media Council is therefore not in a position to determine what Ms Newman and the reporter might have understood from their discussion. Ms Newman asked that nothing be published and her understanding that this request had been accepted may have been reinforced by the fact that the story was held, only to be run three weeks later.

11. We have no information as to why the story was held for so long but its belated publication was clearly a surprise to her.

12. Ms Newman had no right to forbid publication of her comment. We have differing versions of what was said when she spoke to the reporter. Claiming that she had forbidden a story goes much further than saying a story was unnecessary, which is the way the Westport News recalls its version of the discussion.

13. This complaint underlines the need for reporters, as a matter of fairness and goodwill, to make it clear to people they are interviewing whether or not they would accede to a request not to publish certain information. If somebody says “please don’t publish that” reporters are, for the most part, obliged to respond and not just leave the issue hanging or give a false impression that they have agreed to the request.

14. This touches on the issue of fairness. But without a clear understanding as to what exactly was said when Ms Newman spoke to the reporter, the Media Council is not able to find this story breached Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).

15. The fact that the tavern was for sale was reported earlier with Ms Newman’s cooperation. To consent to that story, which may have been to her benefit by helping her find a buyer for the business, she cannot later claim a follow-up story breaches her privacy.

16. No clear argument has been advanced to support her claim that the story breached principle 4 (comment and fact).

17. The complaint has not been upheld.

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

Jonathan Mackenzie stood down to maintain the public member majority.