THE NELSON CITIZENS ALLIANCE AGAINST THE NELSON WEEKLY
Case Number: 3387
Council Meeting: February 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Nelson Weekly
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Right of Reply
Local Body Elections
- On 5 October 2022, three days before the 8 October final polling day for the local body elections, the print and online editions of the Nelson Weekly ran an advertisement from the Nelson Citizens Alliance (NCA) criticising some individual candidates’ experience and qualifications. There were complaints to the Nelson Weekly from the candidates who had been criticised about the accuracy of the advertisement. Later on 5 October the Nelson Weekly took down the advertisement from its online edition and published responses from the individual candidates concerned. In the next week’s edition of the Nelson Weekly the Editor printed a correction and apology.
- The complaint is not upheld by the Council.
- Neville Male of the NCA complains about the advertisement being removed without consultation with him and that the NCA was given no right of reply to the candidates’ responses to the advertisement.
- This complaint was initially considered under the Media Council’s fast track triage process for complaints and was found to have no grounds to proceed to full Council. Mr Male subsequently raised some further points, in the light of which the Media Council decided his complaint would be reconsidered by full Council.
- The Media Council also initially considered whether the complaint fell under its terms of reference, as it arose from an advertisement more likely to fall within the mandate of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It was concluded that given the complaint was about the editorial actions of the Nelson Weekly subsequent to the publication of the advertisement including an editorial correction and apology, that it fell within the Media Council’s mandate to consider.
- The complaint concerns the last of a number of paid local body election-related advertisements from the NCA, published over some weeks in the Nelson Weekly. The earlier advertisements contained robust comment to which no objection was taken by the Nelson Weekly. The 5 October advertisement was headed NELSONIANS YOU NOW HAVE 4 DAYS TO VOTE (new line)WHO YOU SHOULD NOT VOTE FOR…(new line) AND THE REASONS WHY”. The complainant says the NCA was entitled to advise people in Nelson who not to vote for and the advertisement should not have been taken down.
- The complainant states he was given insufficient notice, time and detailed information to allow him to make a response to the subsequently published responses from the candidates attacked in the NCA advertisement of 5 October. He also objects to the speedy removal of the advertisement from the Nelson Weekly, without consultation with him. The actions by the Nelson Weekly were to the detriment of the NCA’s reputation.
- The actions taken by the Nelson Weekly to remove the advertisement (within 12 hours of publication) and to publish candidate responses were taken at 6:30pm the same day, 5 October. As Mr Male was busy that afternoon he had no opportunity to identify the factual correction issues raised by the Editor and to respond to the matters raised. He was contacted about the matter by the Editor by phone at around 2pm on 5 October, and then at 2.20pm by email, as per his request to deal with the matter in writing. Contrary to the Nelson Weekly's version of events, he says the editor never told him she was working on an article, she didn't ring him again that day and the owner didn't offer the opportunity to respond to the story.
- This was in breach of Media Council Principles
- The Publisher responds that the full page 5 October advertisement from NCA was a change in tone from earlier advertisements giving information about NCA and its candidates, towards an attack ad on other candidates. The 5 October advertisement was found to contain information which was incorrect. In relation to one candidate the advertisement said: “FACT... having virtually NO SUCCESSFUL GOVERNANCE track record he makes UNREALISTIC CLAIMS that he will ‘lead greater investment in business and community organisations”; and also that “He has FAILED TO TELL VOTERS of being extensively involved with the VIOLENT ANTI- DEMOCRATIC group EXTINCTION REBELLION and has held the position of Social Media Facilitator within the Nelson Branch of that organisation.” The publisher says that the first point is obviously incorrect, as the candidate was at the time a sitting councillor, therefore had governance experience and the candidate directly contradicted the second point as incorrect.
- In relation to another candidate the advertisement said: “…he believes his academic background and being a collaborative person would make him a suitable Councillor. FACT... He is a LEADER of the Nelson Branch of Extinction Rebellion... “ The publisher says this statement is also untrue according to the candidate. He was at one time a member of the Nelson branch of Extinction Rebellion but was never a leader and had not been a member for more than two years prior to the election.
- These two candidates approached the Weekly to say the information in the advertisement was false and that they were upset by it. The publisher says that if the timing of the 5 October advertisement had been earlier in the election cycle, the Nelson Weekly would have printed a correction to these false statements to ensure it reached the same audience as the initial false information. However, because the election was just days away the Weekly had to come up with a different plan.
- First, the Nelson Weekly decided to remove the advertisement from the online edition to stop the further spread of the misinformation. In addition the Editor decided to write a news story on the issue. The Editor gave each of the five candidates mentioned in the advertisement an opportunity to be quoted in the story. She phoned Mr Male at around 2pm to get his comments. Mr Male asked for an email with detail about the factual inaccuracies. The Editor followed up with an email at 2:22pm explaining the claimed inaccuracies about the two candidates in relation to Extinction Rebellion. The publisher says that by 6.30pm the Editor still had not had a response from Mr Male and tried to call him again. The editor says this call went unanswered.
- The publisher adds that every effort was made to get balance and accuracy; that given the proximity of the election it was important to act quickly; and that in the circumstances Mr Male was given sufficient time to respond. The Nelson Weekly met Mr Male subsequently to try to get more factual information and also offered him a chance to have his comments added to the online article. These efforts proved unsuccessful.
- The publisher also says he regrets that this advertisement was allowed to go to print without a final check and says the Nelson Weekly is changing its systems in an effort to ensure this does not happen again.
- The Media Council’s Principles state that editors have ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications. Although this complaint was sparked because of a paid advertisement, normally the domain of the ASA, the substance of the complaint is about subsequent editorial actions of the Nelson Weekly.
- The nub of the issue to be considered by the Media Council is whether the Nelson Weekly’s editorial actions were compliant with Media Council principles on fairness and balance and corrections. Mr Male’s main concerns appear to be that he was given insufficient time and information to be able to respond to the Nelson Weekly’s corrective actions in relation to the advertisement, before they were taken, and that this was unfair.
- The advertisement was election campaign material and was published three days before local body polling day. The Nelson Weekly believed it was important for factual errors in the advertisement to be corrected as a matter of urgency. The complainant was given half a day to respond about the factual errors and did not do so. The Nelson Weekly notes in its further contacts with Mr Male that he has still not provided proof that the contested assertions in the advertisement were correct. He was given the opportunity to explain further his side of the story in the Weekly, but did not take that up. The candidates criticised were entitled to be upset about the factual errors and to have them quickly corrected. This was a tight timeframe for all concerned, but in the circumstances, the Council believes the Nelson Weekly’s action in allowing those candidates criticised in the advertisement a chance to reply was reasonable.
- What happened after the Editor emailed Mr Male on 5 October is in dispute. Without any proof either way, the Council is not able to rely on either version events as fact. However it is clear that Mr Male was given notice by phone and email, and at least some hours to respond.
- On corrections, the complainant has not provided information to show that the contested statements were accurate; correction from the complainant’s point of view is thus not required.
- The complaint is not upheld on Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance or Principle (12) Corrections.
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Alison Thom, Marie Shroff, Judi Jones, Jonathan Mackenzie, Tim Watkin, Hank van Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough and Scott Inglis. The three minority members were Raynor Asher. Tim Watkin and Judi Jones.