The New Zealand Press Council has upheld one part of a complaint against the New Zealand Herald by the Journalist’s Chapel of the newspaper. The complaint, lodged on behalf of the Chapel by the New Zealand Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (NZEPMU), was over the newspaper’s published treatment of the Herald’s decision to reduce editorial staff. The Council upheld one part of the complaint and dismissed the other.

In its publication on 27 November 1998 on page 3 the Herald carried an ordinary commercial news story providing information and containing quotes by the newspaper’s managing director, Mr John Sanders, and the editor, Mr Gavin Ellis. The story focussed on the intention to restructure the newspaper and to reduce editorial department staff by up to 27 positions as part of editorial budget savings of $1.5 million. The item was headlined “Herald launches review as tough year looms”. The editorial staff were informed of the proposed reductions in personnel and responded with an immediate press release, some of which was contained within the news item. The story had 13 separate short paragraphs and the 5th paragraph contained the details of the reductions and the necessity to achieve savings. The union’s critical response to the proposal was in the 10th paragraph. The union was reported as saying “...[I]ts members were shocked by the scale of the redundancies....” And that “...[S]taffing cuts seemed unjustifiably high.” The union also sought to have its full views published and sent a letter on the same day to the editor for publication which he declined to do, in a reply sent on that day.

The union complained to the Press Council seeking an adjudication as it was unable to settle its differences with the editor.

The union constructs its complaint on two separate, but linked, grounds. The first complaint is that the 27 November article failed to meet normal and accepted journalistic standards in relation to news selection and presentation. The particular of the failure was the alleged burying of the essence of the of the news release on details of the redundancies in the 5th paragraph which was preceded by “four anodyne” (complainant’s words) paragraphs from the managing director. The complaint is about the position of the real news in the article. In support of this part of the complaint the union cited treatment of two other metropolitan dailies which gave prominence in their articles to the redundancies.

The union in support of this complaint sought to make a distinction between a news story and a company announcement. The union says it was a news story that required accepted journalistic treatment which would not have been obligatory if it were an announcement by the company. The editor rejected this refinement and the Council thinks he is correct.

The second complaint was the refusal of the editor to publish a letter submitted by the New Zealand Herald editorial union staff on the same day in which the article appeared. The letter made points questioning the scale of the redundancies and the possible threat to the quality of the paper to which union members had contributed. The letter contained the following sentence: “Clearly, the Herald’s overseas owner, the O’Reilly Group, is seeking to maximise its profits in New Zealand despite the economic downturn.” The press release included a similar remark that was not published as part of the union response. The editor refused to publish the letter but later said he would consider another version but even then he reserved the right not to publish a letter at all. That qualified offer was declined by the union.

The union’s complaint is that in these particular circumstances in refusing to publish a letter the editor was wrongly using his power to prevent the public hearing the union’s viewpoint on a matter in which they had a legitimate interest. The strategy of letters to the editor is frequently adopted rather than press releases as the rules for publication of letters provide greater security for the message.

The editor rejected both complaints. On the first complaint concerning the allegation of failure to write the story using accepted journalistic practice by emphasising early in the story the essential point of redundancies, the editor maintained the account of the company’s policies covered a wider perspective of the proposals before addressing the effects on the editorial department. He said the readers were being informed for the first time about measures affecting the whole structure of the newspaper. He further pointed out that the story contained the elements of the union’s press release.

On the second complaint of failure to print the union’s letter he said he was not prepared to include invective on matters that he personally knew to be untrue. The invective he nominated as the comment reproduced above concerning “ the O’Reilly Group”; and that he had been involved in the budget discussions and he knew those allegations were untrue.

Most chief executive officers regard staff redundancies as a most painful exercise and carried out only because there appears to be no other alternative in fulfilling the task of maintaining commercial viability for the enterprise. However phrased in the release the culling of staff is a course adopted without relish and undertaken with reluctance.The heart of the complaint is the positioning of the gravamen of the story, as it affected the union members, in the totality of the story.

The Council will not interfere with the decision of an editor in what is essentially an editorial issue on the order of the publication of information, even when emanating from the newspaper’s owners.The facts were all set out and it was for the Herald’s readership to reach their own conclusions.The fact that other editors of newspapers treated the story differently gives no support to the union’s complaint. This part of the complaint is not upheld.

The Council takes a different view on the refusal of the editor to publish a letter from the union. The objections of the editor to the reference to the O’Reilly Group is not in the Council’s view correctly described as invective. Foreign ownership of New Zealand’s assets is frequently canvassed in the media reflecting a view held by some in society and the language used by the Chapel was not abusive rhetoric. The fact that the editor claimed personal knowledge of factual error does not constitute a valid reason for declining to publish the letter. A published letter does not require factual verification by an editor. In any event an editor may place a footnote to a letter.

The Council is of the view in these special circumstances of the newspaper making a release about its own commercial activities it should have adopted a course that was unexceptionable. The editor unquestionably had a partisan interest in the issue, and it was incumbent on him, in those circumstances, to recognise his position and act with strict impartiality. In this case he did not, and the Council upholds this part of the complaint.

There was another occasion when the Council had to adjudicate on a dispute between the union and the Christchurch Star, which no longer publishes on its previous basis. On that occasion the details of the complaint were different, but the principle of the editor being required to give due publishing space to the union was upheld.

Further explanation is required in view of the Council’s decision to uphold on the letter complaint. The Council by its past decisions has consistently upheld the editor’s prerogative to decide what letters he or she will publish and the circumstances of the publication. This adjudication does not detract from that general stand. The Council, nevertheless, reserves for itself the right to follow a different course where there are truly exceptional circumstances calling for such an approach. The Council has found they exist here, for the reasons set out above.


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