THE CENTRAL RHA AGAINST THE EVENING POST

Case Number: 656

Council Meeting: JUNE 1997

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Evening Post

The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint from the Central Regional Health Authority against the Evening Post.

The RHA complained about a mental health funding story which changed between editions on 26 February. The first edition story quoted a spokesman from Capital Coast Crown Health Enterprise (CHE) as saying mental health funding from the RHA was to be increased from the present $30 million. The next two editions said funding for Wellington’s mental health services may be cut by $7 million. But, the same CHE spokesman was quoted saying the RHA was proposing to cut the mental health budget of his CHE from $30 million to $23 million.

The RHA complained that that was misleading because overall funding for Wellington was to increase, and the expected reduction in Capital Coast Health’s funding was because the CHE itself had decided to pull put of some services. It said the CHE spokesman was not speaking from an RHA perspective and should not have been relied on as the sole source of information.

It said the Evening Post did not contact the RHA before the changes to the story were made and it had failed in its responsibility to ensure accuracy and balance. The RHA said that while it was contacted at 1.30 p.m., too late for the second edition deadline, correcting information could have been put in the third edition. A correcting story was run the following day.

Replying to the RHA, the editor of the Post, Suzanne Carty, said that after first edition deadline, a lengthy interview with the CHE spokesman had produced new information. The subsequent re-write was not completed until 12.25 p.m., very late for the second edition. She acknowledged that the RHA could have been contacted then but that its comment would have been included only in the final and smallest edition, which had not been acceptable to the paper. She did not accept that the reporter had made a mistake, but said she had done her job within the extremely tight time constraints within which evening newspapers worked.

Ms Carty could give no assurance that the situation would not be repeated, saying news seldom happened in a neat, tidy chronological order. In a further letter, the acting editor Karl du Fresne, said the reporter had no reason to think further comment from the RHA was necessary to round off the story. Her information came from an authoritative CHE source and appeared to stand on its own. He said the Evening Post had been caught up unwittingly in a complex and politically-sensitive issue.

In upholding the complaint , the Press Council acknowledges that evening newspapers generally work under greater time pressures for more of the time than others. The complaint highlights the difficulty of judgment calls that are forced to be made under such deadline pressures with breaking stories.

The Council agrees with the acting editor that the articles dealt with a politically-sensitive area, but finds that was the very reason to be especially careful in reporting it.

Given the differing interests between health funders,(RHA), and health providers, (CHE), it is unreasonable to assume that the RHA might not have a completely different perspective to the CHE’s. The Evening Post would have been on stronger ground if it had contacted the RHA for comment at the earliest opportunity, which the editor acknowledged had not occurred.

However, in upholding the complaint, the Council also finds it is unreasonable for the RHA to demand an assurance from the editor that a similar situation will not arise again; it is impossible to know what variables might be at play that could influence any given situation.

Neither the editor of the Evening Post, Suzanne Carty, nor the political editor of the paper Brent Edwards, each a member of the Press Council, was at the meeting when the complaint was considered.