The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the University of Otago and Dr. Fogelberg, its Vice-Chancellor, (hereinafter referred to as “the complainants”) against The Dominion newspaper over a series of articles on the Wellington School of Medicine. The complaint was lodged through solicitors who expressly limited their instructions to those named as complainants.

A description is provided of the main parties who will be mentioned in the adjudication. The University of Otago is the controlling body of the Wellington and Christchurch Schools of Medicine. Professor John Nacey is the Dean of the Wellington School. Professor Richard Beasley works at the School and prior to the dispute that arose between him and the School was head of the Department of Medicine, and closely involved with the Wellington Asthma Research Group. He is highly regarded in the field of asthma research possessing an international reputation for his work.

A dispute arose between Professor Beasley and the Wellington School of Medicine, that was ultimately settled and a public statement issued to the media. The settlement was not reached before the articles in question were published. The nature of that dispute is not the issue in the complaint and this adjudication does not concern itself with it. Perhaps at the heart of the problem arising out of the complaint to be outlined, is the perception by some that Professor Beasley had been unfairly treated by the University of Otago and the Wellington School of Medicine.

On Saturday 17 February 2001 The Dominion newspaper published a by-lined article with the headline “Revolt rocks medical school”. The first two paragraphs were as follows:

“ FOURTEEN senior doctors have resigned their teaching positions at Wellington School of Medicine in a revolt against management.

The crisis deepened yesterday when five senior Wellington general practitioners also withdrew their teaching services from the school.”

The cause of the resignations and withdrawal of services were said to be triggered by the school’s treatment of Richard Beasley in his dispute with it. The article further broadened the issues with this statement:

“ But sources said there was also widespread dissatisfaction within the school about the way it was being run and managed.”

The article contained allegations, stemming from “sources”, that the defections would jeopardise the future teaching capability of the medical school and its relationship to the Wellington hospital yet to be built. For reasons of ethics and confidentiality The Dominion does not reveal the identities of their sources but did confirm that they were authoritative and well informed. Both Professor Nacey and Dr. Fogelberg were approached but neither made a comment on the central issues of the article. By use of “sources” and quotations from others named, the tone of the article was definitely critical of the management of the Medical School and of possible downstream effects of the wider dispute.

There was a follow up article two days later on 19 February reporting the comments of the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, the Minister of Health, Annette King and those of Tertiary Education Minister, Steve Maharey all making public their awareness of the problem at the Medical School. Again in that article further critical comments of Otago University were reported, several from sources not identified, but some from Gary Nicholls, Professor of Medicine at the Christchurch School of Medicine saying events in Wellington appeared to be “part of a pattern how Otago University in recent times is dealing with its quite senior, very productive staff.”

The written complaint alleged the two articles left a lasting impression of mismanagement at Otago University and constituted a breach of the Council’s first Principle that publications “…should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance….” The complainants were particularly aggrieved by a statement in the 19 February article that the university is “out of control”. The Dominion did publish on 20 February a response from Professor Nacey in a by-lined article under the heading “No teaching crisis, says medical school dean.”

The solicitors acting for the complainants made an immediate approach to the editor seeking a retraction and apology in respect of the two articles. A series of letters followed between the complainants’ solicitors and those acting for the newspaper but responses by way of correction could not be agreed upon and were never made. There were factual disputes about the availability of Dr. Fogelberg and Professor Nacey for comment and whether the newspaper had received in time a copy of a letter written by the School’s Heads of Department but these allegations do not constitute the gravamen of the complaint. The Council does not believe the newspaper breached Principle 2 concerning Corrections.

Whilst not alleging directly that the first article was inaccurate in reporting “FOURTEEN senior doctors have resigned their teaching positions….” and the mention of the five senior Wellington doctors who withdrew their teaching services the complaint instead laid emphasis on the “exaggerated” treatment of the issues. The use of words “crisis” and “jeopardy” in the article was the subject of complaint. However, a highly critical series of remarks made by Ian Powell, executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists were also reported. One of them being the situation had “all the ear marks of becoming a calamity”. There has been some disagreement between the parties about the accuracy of the adjective “senior” but that is not a material issue.

The complaint stated that the 14 were clinical lecturers who decided “not to renew the teaching contracts” and this had “…no significant effect on the school’s ability to deliver teaching programmes,….” In any event the departures remained a small proportion of the total teaching staff.

The response of The Dominion is that it stands firmly behind the accuracy of its articles and that they were in the public interest and in compliance with Principle 1 relating to accuracy, fairness and balance. Any lack of reportage of the position of the University of Otago, the Wellington School of Medicine or Professor Nacey arose because those sources at material times declined or were not available to provide information to The Dominion. The question of availability has already been dealt with.

In the Council’s view these are not direct challenges to the basic accuracy of the newspaper’s reporting but are themselves interpretative spin on the facts. Moreover, The Dominion was reporting the views of others. There can be little doubt but that the actions of the group of 19 medical teachers who either withdrew, refused to renew or resigned did so in protest against the treatment of Professor Beasley, and this is conceded by the complainants, at least for the 14 clinical lecturers.

It may be that the reports stretched the effect of the departures on the ability of the School to deliver adequate teaching services, and, even more so, on the proposed hospital to operate satisfactorily. Nevertheless, that is doing what newspapers have always done. A worst possible scenario is hardly new in the media world where freedom of expression reigns. They do not constitute lack of fairness or balance.

The complaints are not upheld.


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