WAIKATO DISTRICT HEALTH BOARD AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3039

Council Meeting: APRIL 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Complaint that a Radio New Zealand article, and its headline, about the actions taken by Waikato District Health Board in relation to the Pukemiro fire was unfair and misleading.

2. The complaint is not upheld.

Background

3. The article was published on the RNZ website on 25 November, 2020, and carried the headlinePublic health officials sought advice on contaminants two months after fire notification.

4. At the time of publication, the story was the latest in a series of articles fromRNZ about the Pukemiro fire. The fire broke out at Puke Coal’s construction and demolition landfill in August.

5. This article focuses specifically on the Waikato DHB’s role in responding to the fire. The DHB was not the lead agency responsible for dealing with the fire.

6. It provides a timeline of the DHB’s involvement, starting from when it was first notified by the district council, the agency leading the initial response, on September 1.

7. The article briefly mentions that a multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT) had been set up, which the DHB was invited to join on November 2.

8. The timeline in the article ends on November 14, when the IMT issued a public warning about contaminants (dioxins), including that pregnant or breastfeeding women should move at least three kilometres away from the fire.


The Complaint

9. Communications Director Nick Wilson complains on behalf of the Waikato DHB.

10. He says both the article and headline are misleading and make it sound like the DHB was responsible for the initial response to the fire and had not taken action as quickly as could be expected.

11. Mr Wilson says it is not until the fourth paragraph the article adds that the Waikato District Council’s Environmental Health Officers were responding and would advise the DHB if significant health issues were identified.

12. He says they only supplied RNZ with a timeline of the DHB’s involvement, not all agencies responding to the fire. Mr Wilson saysRNZ only requested salient dates relating to action by the DHB, and it would be inappropriate for them to speak on behalf of others regardless. He says by omitting information about the actions being taken by the likes of the District Council and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) however, the reader is led to incorrectly believe that no activity occurred during the time period covered.

13. Mr Wilson says the DHB was not engaged in the direct response to the fire until the formation of the IMT on November 2.

14. The fifth paragraph states ‘On 12 October the public health unit was asked to put out health advice.’ Mr Wilson says this advice was general guidance on avoiding smoke and tank water safety and had nothing to do with dioxins.

15. He says the article repeatedly and consistently misrepresents the DHB’s role and omits information about the response which would contradict this narrative.

The Response

16. Complaints Coordinator George Bignell responds on behalf of RNZ and says they can find no basis for the allegations made in the complaint.

17. He says the article provides a chronology of events, and it is the DHB that has drawn the inference about it being the agency responsible from the time of notification.

18. Mr Bignell says the article clearly states that the District Council’s environmental health officers were investigating.

19. Mr Bignell says it is not possible, or necessary, to map out for readers the complicated structure of the IMT in a short article like this one.

20. He says the point is that some 41 days after notification of the fire, the public health unit was asked to provide health advice. He says the exact mechanism of how that advice was communicated did not need to be explained to readers.

21.Mr Bignell says the facts provided in the article were all accurate, and none of the inferences the DHB drew from it were contained in the story itself.


The Decision

22. The focus of the article is the two-month gap between when the DHB was notified by the Waikato District Council of the fire, and when the IMT issued a warning about dioxins. It is an important question to answer; what were the agencies responsible doing in that time, and could they have acted faster?

23. The DHB argues it only became involved in the response once the IMT was set-up on November 2. It says it then acted quickly to deal with health concerns, requesting expert advice from ESR the next day. As soon as it received that report back on November 13, it sent a risk assessment to IMT the same day. IMT alerted the community the following day.

24. The DHB believes the story unfairly implies it should have acted earlier. Council members agree there is an inference the DHB was slow to act, and that the article does have elements of unfairness. The language used in places also implied a slow response, “But...”, “Not until...”. However, the article does not criticise the DHB, it simply sets out the timeline of events as supplied by the DHB.

25. The story is also clear that the DHB wasn’t the lead agency responding to the fire. It outlines how two months after the fire started, ‘public health officials’ – not the DHB specifically – sought expert advice on contaminants. Upon determining it was unsafe, three pregnant women immediately followed health advice and moved further away.

26. The story references multiple agencies and indirectly poses the question as to why it took so long to establish the fire’s toxicity. It does not blame the DHB for the time it took.

27. It also highlights a response protocol which does not require a DHB to assess a health risk until it is asked to by the relevant local body authority or action/working group. These are reasonable points to raise.

28. Council members note this was an important story which provided valuable information about the way agencies and officials responded to a fire which posed significant risks to the community. It highlighted a significant gap in the response. Media exposure of issues like this is clearly in the public interest.

29. Whilst the DHB is unimpressed with how the story is written, it is accurate and fair.

30. The complaint is not upheld.

Decision

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Rosemary Barraclough stood down to maintain a public member majority.