WAITAKI DISTRICT COUNCIL & ALISON BANKS AGAINST OAMARU MAIL
The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld, by a majority, a complaint against The Oamaru Mail by the Waitaki District Council and Alison Banks following the publication of an article linking Mrs Banks, the Waitaki district’s community safety co-ordinator, to the conviction of her son on a charge of depositing litter likely to endanger.
The Press Council believes the newspaper technically breached none of its statement of principles in publishing the article. Nevertheless, the newspaper’s decision to apologise promptly to Mrs Banks for the article reveals the Mail’s discomfort at what it published. Newspapers, particularly smaller ones which live by their connection with their community, can face a higher authority in their treatment of stories – their own readers. In readers’ judgement in this instance, the newspaper has been found wanting.
Three members of the Press Council would have upheld the complaint on grounds of unfairness.
On Thursday, May 31, 2007, under the heading Alison Banks’ son appears in court, the Mail reported how “high-profile” Mrs Banks had faced “another crime issue yesterday – her son appeared in court.” The front-page article went on to give details of the prosecution’s case that led to her son pleading guilty under Section 15 (2) of the Litter Act when he deposited litter likely to endanger another person, a glass bottle, on May 12.
The article said Mrs Banks had been behind efforts to try to curb continuing youth crime and vandalism problems, and gave details of some of them. Comment was sought from Mrs Banks, and one quotation was included.
On Monday, June 4, 2007, in an article written by the general manager, Tony Nielsen, and under the heading Apology to Alison Banks, the newspaper said it had received a “big reaction” to the initial article.
It said: “Many of our readers have told us we did Mrs Banks a disservice by publishing her name on the front page in connection with her son’s reported offence.”
The newspaper said it had no intention to embarrass Mrs Banks and that she did a “fantastic job” in the community, noting her good work had been publicised many times in the Mail.
It continued: “Listening to our readers’ views we now believe it was inappropriate to publish this story on the front page and connect Alison Banks with her son’s conviction . . . The facts were right, but we got it wrong when we decided how to treat the story. For that, we unreservedly apologise.”
By this time, the Waitaki District Council, which employs Mrs Banks, had withdrawn its advertising from the Mail. In an email on June 5 to the council’s chief executive Michael Ross, Mr Nielsen said: “I believe it [the article] should never have been published and that our editor made an error of judgement by publishing the story.” He had not known it was going to be published and would have acted had he known.
But Mr Nielsen said he also believed he had acted with integrity since publication, by acknowledging the error and apologising. He had also initiated a more robust process so that unnecessarily provocative local stories were not published in future without due consideration.
He also noted the District Council was entitled to withdraw its advertising but the outcome it hoped for had already been achieved in that the editor had realised a mistake was made. “Your action will now impact (unfairly in my view) on the rest of my staff, and I ask you to reconsider your decision.” Staff had had to shoulder the “hue and cry” that had resulted from the article.
In his response on June 8, Mr Ross said the advertising ban would be reviewed at the end of the month. While he noted and appreciated steps taken by the newspaper as a result of the article, he was highly critical of what he regarded as the negative and divisive stance the Mail took on “most of our local interest stories.”
Reporters at the Mail, no matter how brief their time in Oamaru, were part of the community, and would benefit from developing a more empathetic approach towards their work which would increase their professional credibility and thus affect the newspaper’s reputation in the wider community. Mr Ross was also critical of what he termed reporters’ general lack of maturity.
He rejected the notion the editor alone had made an error of judgement. The reporter who filed the story had also made an error of judgement.
Mr Ross did not believe the cancellation of advertising would affect the Mail’s staff. Any loss of revenue would affect the shareholder who is the “party with the most to lose and who is also in the best position to improve this situation.”
Mr Ross formally complained to the Press Council on behalf of the District Council and Mrs Banks on June 25. In his letter he said: “It is clear that this headline and article is a gross example of ‘sensationalising’ news through the media and the only reason that this was published was as a direct result of the role that Mrs Banks holds on behalf of the community.”
Specifically, Mr Ross noted two grounds - Privacy (“Publications should exercise care and discretion before identifying relatives or persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not directly relevant to the matter reported”) and Children and Young People (“Editors should have particular care and consideration for reporting on or about children and young people.”)
The Newspaper’s Response
After the Press Council sought clarification from the Mail, the editor, Barry Clarke, explained he was based at APN’s regional headquarters in Christchurch where he was also editor of the twice-weekly broadsheet, The Star, Christchurch, and its community news group. Oamaru Mail sub-editors were based in Christchurch and reporters in Oamaru. He was editorially responsible for the content of the Mail, and Mr Nielsen was responsible for the business side and oversaw staff.
The editor explained the Mail had been highlighting disorder problems with youth in the town for 18 months, usually on the front page. Various opinions and solutions had been sought, and Mrs Banks was among those who regularly featured.
The Mail covered the fortnightly district court day in Oamaru extensively, and these appeared usually on page three unless the matter was quirky, serious or deemed to be of more public interest than page three. Sometimes comment was sought from an offender, victim or other party.
Mrs Banks herself had raised the issue that her son might be soon appearing in the court list or police notebook with the newspaper’s chief reporter in an informal discussion in late 2006. The chief reporter had said that if that did occur, the Mail would have to report it and possibly the story would record how difficult it was to bring up teenagers. Mrs Banks had asked the chief reporter to call her if that happened.
On May 30, 2007, the editor had learned that Mrs Banks’ son had appeared in court and been convicted under the Litter Act. Because of Mrs Banks’ position, her high profile in North Otago and the editor’s belief she had never shied away from publicity for the work she did, her son’s conviction for the offence made it newsworthy and it was elevated to the front page.
The editor denied the article and heading were sensationalising. The article was accurate and balanced and the headline was plain and unemotional.
He denied any breach of privacy. Mrs Banks held a public position and her son’s conviction was directly associated with the work she did. Naming her in association with the conviction was therefore fair and not unreasonable.
As for the principle regarded Children and Young People, the editor said the Mail always exercised care and consideration for reporting on children and young people. In this case, the son was 17, convicted in open court and did not have name suppression. The newspaper regularly published names of others of the same age.
In reply, Mr Ross maintained placing the article on page one was questionable particularly when compared with other cases which were placed on page three.
He also said the argument that the matter warranted page one treatment because of Mrs Banks’ position in the community was untenable. She had sought profile for work-related campaigns, not as an individual.
The Mail appeared to justify its placement because Mrs Banks promoted programmes to discourage the behaviour her son displayed. That was correct but Mr Ross noted the view of the wider community and its reaction to the paper’s coverage indicated they did not consider the story worthy of page one treatment.
While the Mail might argue that technically it covered the matter professionally, ethically its judgment remained open to question. Mr Ross said the council was not alone in withdrawing its advertising in protest but had recommenced advertising with the mail from July 1.
The role of the editor is to decide what should be published in a newspaper, and where articles or illustrations should be placed. Many factors are taken into account in making such decisions.
The Press Council notes a trend whereby media companies are editing and producing more publications away from their immediate circulation areas. In this instance, statements from the Oamaru-based general manager and the Christchurch-based editor indicated a lack of clarity over who really was in charge.
This is a particular conundrum for newspapers so edited. Issues such as how a story is covered, its angles and emphasis and where it is placed in the newspaper might be viewed very differently by people in different localities, and effective internal communication takes on added importance.
Correspondence to the Press Council, however, revealed that the editor remains responsible for the content of the Mail.
It is clear that the article of May 31 drew considerable criticism. The newspaper received critical letters from readers, and the general manager wrote of the “hue and cry” his staff had had to shoulder as a result of publication.
Such criticism, often forcefully delivered, is very much part of newspaper life when publication of some detail offends a section of the community. Readers can take offence for a variety of reasons. Staff of a newspaper who go about their everyday lives in the community are more likely to feel the heat than those who live outside.
As happened in this case, a newspaper can suffer a financial penalty for such offence. The District Council withdrew its advertising. It was entitled to do so, although the Press Council considers the withdrawal of advertising to be a crude weapon, particularly when the larger aim of the District Council seems to have been to encourage a higher standard and more community-engaged style of journalism in the local paper.
It is not for the Press Council to decide whether The Oamaru Mail was justified in running the article, or whether its placement was correct. Such matters remain the responsibilities of editors who must bear the consequences of their decisions.
The Oamaru Mail was entitled to link the fact that Mrs Banks was the mother of a young man convicted of littering when part of her job was to try to prevent such activity and the issue was a news item in the town. This is no doubt distressing, but the reporting of news is often distressing for affected parties. Not to have linked these facts might well have drawn criticism on the newspaper from other sources.
The Press Council’s privacy principle contains the statement: “Publications should exercise care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not directly relevant to the matter reported.”
The Council has considered previously (Case 1059) such matters. In that instance, a majority ruled that the identification of a family member of a man convicted of a serious crime was not necessary and was an unnecessary invasion of privacy.
In this case, however, it is considered that the reference to the young man’s mother was directly relevant to the matter reported as it was part of her job to try to prevent such behaviour.
The complaint with regard to Children and Young People also cannot be sustained. The young man was named in open court and the newspaper was entitled if not obliged to publish it.
The issue of fairness is more difficult and subjective. The Press Council can only judge fairness by examining the words of the actual article and the context of the explanations of the editor. It does not find the newspaper acted unfairly.
The complaint is not upheld.
The dissenting opinion
Three members of the Press Council, Keith Lees, Ruth Buddicom and Lynn Scott, disagreed with the decision to not uphold the complaint. They accept that it was reasonable for the newspaper to publish the details of the young man’s conviction and to note that his mother was the Waitaki Council’s safety co-ordinator. In their view, however, the combined effect of the placement of the report on the front page, under the headline Alison Banks’ son appears in court, reinforced by the lead sentence, which noted that she “faced another crime issue” (her son’s court appearance) and with several references to her throughout, was to give an undue and unfair prominence to Mrs Banks. The dissenting group would uphold this complaint – on the grounds of lack of fairness.
Council members not upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, Denis McLean and Alan Samson.
Council members upholding the complaint were Ruth Buddicom, Keith Lees and Lynn