TARANAKI DAILY NEWS AGAINST NEW PLYMOUTH DISTRICT COUNCILIntroduction
The initial approach to the Press Council on the subject of this adjudication was made by the editor of the Taranaki Daily News who on September 29 submitted correspondence from the New Plymouth District Council to the newspaper detailing 19 separate complaints between July 10 and September 20.
In response to the editor’s action the council submitted its complaints to the Press Council on October 10. Subsequently both the council and the newspaper have provided voluminous amounts of material involving further points of contention.
Essentially, however, the issue is a general complaint by the council that it is being treated unfairly by the newspaper.
The Press Council will not in this adjudication deal individually with the merits or otherwise of each complaint, many of which have several separate components. The Council will also exclude points which have been made both by the New Plymouth council and the newspaper in their correspondence. These lie outside the complaints although they have been considered as background information in this matter.
The formal complaints have, however, been considered case by case in reaching the general conclusion which both parties are seeking.
The complaints by the council range from the use of emotive language, inaccurate headings and lack of balance through to a failure to report the council’s position. The topics include increases in parking fees, responses to a reader’s letter, camping ground leases, part of a tree falling onto a car in a car park, the culling of ducks and the venue of soccer matches.
The council position is summed up in a letter of October 31 from its chief executive to the newspaper. “We remain of the belief that your newspaper is implicitly biased against the council”
The council has also taken issue with the newspaper’s reporting of the editor’s approach to the Press Council arguing that the report itself is misleading and calculated to win public support and damage the standing of the council.
The newspaper’s reply
The newspaper has acknowledged failings in its coverage in several instances and has carried individual corrections in respect of some of the complaints. It has also instituted a regular corrections column. But it maintains it is not biased against the council.
In a letter to the Press Council the editor traces a council change of attitude to coverage of a controversy over the establishment of a centre celebrating the artist Len Lye. He suggests a link between the centre funding and the increases in parking fees, which is one of the more substantial matters on which the council has complained.
However, as the council has not submitted any complaints to the Press Council on the Lye coverage they fall outside the scope of this adjudication.
The newspaper’s position is that the council is “waging a vexatious campaign against us in a vain attempt to manipulate the news.” The newspaper, it suggests, is merely doing its job “to act on behalf of its readers by reporting fairly and without fear or favour what is happening in their community.”
The relationship between a local authority and local newspaper is always potentially tense. It is the role of the press to examine council decisions and actions and these inevitably provoke emotions.
Councils have to make difficult decisions and, when these are criticised, can feel under siege. The council acknowledges the role of the press in its letter to the Press Council of November 6. “Councils are no strangers to controversy and criticism and council supports the rights of the community to voice their opinions.”
Yet in some of its complaints council seems inclined to detect hostility where there is little evidence of it. The use of the terms “hike” and “bumped up” in reports of the parking fee stories seem less loaded than council believes
For its part the newspaper is disingenuous in implying that phrases like “flip-flop” and “move the goalposts” are neutral.
The newspaper’s belief that it has maintained its even-handed position in the face of mounting complaints is belied by indications of an increasingly confrontational attitude towards the council.
In its detailed consideration of individual complaints against the newspaper the Press Council has found very few instances where the Council’s principles have been breached. In those cases where the breach was significant, a satisfactory correction was made and the editor has acknowledged that in “at least a couple of cases” its processes were not ideal.
In other cases while there might have been minor lapses from best practice they have not been sufficiently damaging to sustain a ruling against the newspaper.
The council might have been unhappy with the position that its views occupied but in most cases the reader was given a fair reflection of those views.
The newspaper acted within its rights in referring the matter to the Press Council. The council had framed its complaints to the newspaper with reference to Press Council principles. Nor was the newspaper acting improperly in carrying a report on its actions which have genuine news value. However it is regrettable that its report introduced extraneous material.
The complaint that the Taranaki Daily News is biased against the council is not upheld. Council and local bodies need to accept that newspaper stories for general readers are not composed in the language of approved motions, committee reports or official handouts.
But the Press Council wishes to draw attention to the need to distinguish properly between fact and opinion in news reports. The editor’s stance in this case that “it is my practice to give reporters some licence to make their own observations about matters that are important to our readers” is one that carries the particular responsibility that such observations are well grounded. In one case, for instance, in which inexpert opinions on the health of a tree were given as much weight as those of an independent arborist this was clearly not so. Lively coverage must not descend into the cavalier.
The Press Council’s principle that publications should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance must be a constant obligation particularly on a local newspaper where the connection among the public, local authorities and the media is intimate and sensitive.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.