THE QUEENSTOWN LAKES DISTRICT COUNCIL AGAINST MOUNTAIN SCENETwo complaints by the Queenstown Lakes District Council against the local community newspaper Mountain Scene have not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council. The District Council’s chief executive Duncan Field complained first about an article on a road race in the tourist town in which two spectators were killed and then about the way the newspaper had handled his letter of complaint.
Every year central Queenstown has been the venue for an event known as the Classic Car road race. On Saturday 2 November 1998 a tragic accident occurred when a racing vehicle crashed into the spectators and two men were killed, and at least two others suffered injuries. The QLDC is the local authority responsible for control of the Queenstown roads.
The article on the road crash , published on the front page, was headed ‘Road - Race Potholes Pinpointed’ accompanied by a photo of three potholes captioned ‘Tank Trap’. The newspaper had contacted nine of the competitors after the race and of the nine, two were quoted criticising the council for the poor surface and state of the track. Two other drivers said that they did not have a problem with the track. All agreed that they had been warned that the track could break up. The article’s concluding sentence read: “Three weeks before the fatal crash QLDC officially promised Queenstown Car Club the track would be race-ready in time.”
Mr Field complained that Mountain Scene had failed to ask the council for comment on the allegations made by the drivers interviewed and that the article attributed the deaths to the potholes. He stated that the council would have responded if it had been given the opportunity. In addition he complained that the accompanying photograph of potholes gave a false impression that they were in the immediate vicinity of the crash when they were 100 metres ahead of the car crash site. He criticised the headline ‘Road - Race Potholes Pinpointed’ as not being supported by the evidence and that the article itself failed to offer balance or explore issues of other parties’ responsibilities. In his published letter he said that the statements of the drivers were ‘inaccurate and warranted explanation’ but he was not explicit about which comments were inaccurate.
The Press Council found the article did not attribute the potholes as the cause of the accident. The article explored the possibility of the state of the track as being a contributing factor to the accident. The police and race officials at the time of the article had not discounted this possibility. The article did not delve further into why the road surface was so poor nor whether racing officials should have allowed the race to proceed. . All the comments in the article were attributed to named sources together with their relevant occupational status. Furthermore, the comments under the photo of the potholes stated that the accident had occurred 100 metres before the spot where the potholes were situated.
Mr Field responded to the article by way of a letter to the editor. It was published two weeks after the original article because it did not arrive in time for the following week’s deadline. Instead Mountain Scene gave notice in the intervening week’s edition that Mr Field’s letter, claiming bias and inaccuracies would be published in full the following week.
Mr Field’s second complaint was that his letter did not receive the same prominence as the original article nor was he contacted about how the paper was to handle his letter, although he was aware that the newspaper would be publishing his letter in full. He objected to the editor’s reply published at the end of the letter which, he said, undermined his comments with ridicule. Furthermore the editor had not acknowledged the council’s view that it was inappropriate not to seek council’s comments on the allegations before publication.
The second complaint to the Press Council was not upheld. The positioning of the unabridged letter was in the appropriate section of the paper and with a reverse type bold heading similar to the original caption on the front page. The editor did not need to acknowledge the council’s view as Mr Field himself had been given the opportunity to spell out the council’s view in full. The editor was free to respond with his opinion and comments, as was Mr Field in his letter. However the Council felt that the editor had trivialised the issue by his personalised comments following Duncan Field’s letter.