WELLINGTON CITY COUNCIL AGAINST THE POST
Case Number: 3469
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2023
Publication: The Post
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Apology and Correction Sought
- This is a complaint by Wellington City Council about an article on the finances of the council entitled Crisis, What Crisis? which appeared in the print edition of The Post on 4 November 2023. Wellington City Council complain the article breaches Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and (4) Comment and Fact. The complaint is upheld on the basis that it was an opinion piece, but not labelled as such and placed on the front page where a reasonable expectation of many readers would be that it was a news item.
- The article appeared in the print edition of The Post on page 1. It was headed Crisis, What Crisis? with the sub-heading Bleak outlook for community projects as council cuts hit hard.
- The article starts off by mentioning the Wellington mayor, quoting her insistence that there was no financial crisis in the city council. In the second paragraph it goes on to state that the city’s budget shortfall, published the day before, was worse than feared. The prospect of rates rises hitting double digits is raised, a situation the article states is “likely to tip already stressed household budgets into well, crisis.” Some detail is then given about selling shares in Wellington Airport and also selling ground leases, as investments that produce revenue streams. It is then said that various projects in the suburbs face the axe.
- The article goes on to say that the mayor has inherited much of the mess. Covid-19 has not helped. However, better management by Auckland Council is noted. After some further paragraphs in a critical vein of the council it is said that the mayor has downgraded her ambitious plans for the city, and it is said that because of her inexperience she leans heavily on the Chief Executive. Council officials drip feed information to councillors, and various large sums have been voted to be paid for various projects. The councillors have only just got the full picture and had only a week to digest the budget and decide what recommendations to accept or reject. The clear implication is that councillors are being manipulated by council staff.
- The article concludes by saying that there are good reasons to sell the Wellington Airport shares and that there is a legitimate debate to be had about that issue. However, the timeframe was too short and councillors should have had much more notice.
- A central aspect of the complaint, brought by Wellington City Council, was that the print article was not identified as an opinion piece. Principle (4) Comment and Fact states in part that “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such.” In contrast, the online article did, from the outset, show that it was an opinion piece. In the print edition it was in a place usually reserved for news stories, and its placement there exacerbated the failure to label it as opinion. The fact that it was identified as an opinion piece online did not excuse the error in the print edition.
- Certain inaccuracies are highlighted which Wellington City Council says breach Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The article states “the city’s budget shortfall, laid out in the long-term plan published yesterday, is worse than feared.” It is pointed out that the long-term plan has not been published when the article was written and that the published report referred to set out options for informing the work on the draft budget for inclusion in the Long Term Plan.
- Various facts were set out, indicating a longer lead time than the article indicated. The mayor was no more dependent on her staff than any political leader. It was wrong to say that the public was usually excluded from the debate and only 10.5% of reports to the Council and committees were publicly excluded, and only when the legal basis for exclusion was met and elected members voted to exclude. Most elected member workshops were livestreamed. The thrust of the complaint was that statements in the article indicating that the council officers closely guarded information and drip fed material to councillors, and that the public were excluded from debates, were wrong or exaggerated. In the original complaint to The Post the Wellington City Council stated that the reporter was being fed information from a minority of unhappy city councillors.
- The Post acknowledged that the failure to label the article in the print edition as an opinion piece was a mistake. It was limited to the print edition; the online version published at 5:00am on the day was labelled opinion. The fact that it was not labelled opinion in the print edition had been picked up, but in the process of going to print the correction that was intended was not made. There was no intent to mislead.
- The Post acknowledges that the failure to refer to it as an opinion piece was a “serious omission.” However, in its response The Post rejected that an opinion piece should not be on the front page. That was a matter of policy for The Post. What is more, even if there had been a change in policy about where an opinion piece should be placed, that should be at the discretion of the media organisation.
- The Wellington City Council is a publicly accountable body and there was no need to get its views on such topical issues. Intense scrutiny from local media is a good thing.
It is also a fact as the city council conceded that balance was provided elsewhere in the newspaper on the same day with a piece on budget
discussions that was not critical of the council. There was council coverage by another reporter. It was also pointed out that
the views of the mayor and councillors were covered in full in The Post’s reporting. The statement that the budget shortfall was worse
than feared was accurate. It was a fact that the draft was presented to councillors with only a week to consider before the
vote. Various other alleged inaccuracies are denied.
- The Post offered Wellington City Council the opportunity to publish an opinion piece in response, but rejected a version sent by the city council as not meeting its editorial standards. It was prepared to publish an article that removed “irrelevancies” and otherwise met its standards. It also offered the opportunity to provide a letter that would be published. Wellington City Council rejected these proposals, observing that a letter would not match the prominence of the original article.
- The Media Council is not persuaded that any inaccuracy has been shown in the article. The assertions that there was no budget shortfall, rather a focus only on elements of a long-term plan, are met by The Post’s claim that the budget was part of the long-term plan. The sentence was accurate. We note that it is not denied that there was an 18-20% rate rise being contemplated, which clearly was a matter of concern. There were, of course, two sides to the respective observations about performance, but if this had been clearly labelled as an opinion piece, they would not have been objectionable. We agree that the role of the media to probe and question local government, and at times to challenge community leaders.
- The complainant asserts that there is a split in the council, with different perspectives on each side. The assertion that Wellington City council officials closely guard information and selectively drip feed to councillors has come from sources within the council. It is impossible to evaluate the accuracy of such an assertion. The article cannot be shown to be inaccurate simply because assertions in it are denied by the complainant. The claim that the public is usually excluded from the debate, and that votes are taken in isolation with only city councillors in possession of the true state of the books, is met by a claim that what happened was usual practice over the years. It is stated by The Post that there was only a week to consider the draft report. This is denied in the complaint. We are unable to choose between these two different perspectives that were presented. No inaccuracy has been shown.
- Further, the article does have some balance within it. There is reference to the mayor inheriting much of the mess, and Wellington having spent beyond its means for many years. Covid and inflation have worsened the situation. There is a need for Wellington City Council to find more revenue. While the article is slanted to question the actions of the mayor and council staff, if it was labelled an opinion piece it would probably have been to an acceptable standard. There might well have been no need to approach those criticised to obtain more balance.
- However, what does really stand out as a matter of concern is the fact that this was not labelled as opinion piece when it clearly was. Principle (4) requires such a clear label. While we do accept that there should be no rule that opinion pieces should not be on the front page of a print newspaper and that this is a matter of editorial discretion, the fact is that some readers will still expect front page articles to contain news rather than statements of opinion. That has traditionally been the layout of newspapers.
- Editors of course are entitled to place opinion pieces where they wish, but they should be labelled as opinion in a prominent way. This article was not labelled as opinion in the print edition. It read on its face like a news report about the state of Wellington City Council finances. Instead, it presented a point of view from a negative perspective towards the mayor and council officers and gave no opportunity for any detailed response.
- It is suggested that it would become quickly apparent to any reader that it was an opinion piece. We are not convinced that this is so. A reader may assume that this article has been through the usual news filtering process to ensure that it is as accurate as possible. We are of the view that making the error of not labelling this as an opinion piece, particularly when it appeared on the front page of The Post, was serious.
- The fact that the error did not occur in the online edition does not assuage such a serious breach. Many readers who focus on the print edition will be left with the impression that rather than a statement of opinion, this was a news report. Why would they bother to read the same article online? It could be expected that the impression would remain.
- While we accept that not labelling the article as an opinion piece was a simple mistake by The Post, made without malice or intention to mislead, it was a significant error and there was no published statement correcting it such as pointing out that it should have been labelled as an opinion piece and was not. There was no apology. While a letter to the editor was offered, and an alternative article from those aligned with the complaint was rejected because it did not meet The Post’s standards leaving open the possibility of re-writing the article, this also does not diffuse the complaint. Such a serious error, of publishing an opinion piece which many would read as a news piece, on the front page of the Post where it would be read by many before the paper is put to one side, has not been corrected sufficiently.
- We also do not see the presence of more balanced articles later in the edition as assuaging the error on the front page. Many readers will have been left with their first impression. When the error was brought to The Post’s attention, although it was accepted as a serious omission, it made no effort to correct and acknowledge the error in a prominent way in the next edition.
For this reason we uphold the complaint under Principle (4) which states that “an article that is essentially comment or opinion should be
clearly presented as such”. This article was essentially opinion and comment but was not clearly labelled as such. In fact the
contrary is the case; it appeared to be an exercise in objective political analysis. The mayor and the council staff criticised were
given no chance to provide balance. That was unfair.
- Decision: The complaint is upheld on the basis of a breach of Principle (4) because an opinion piece was not clearly presented as such.
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.
Council members Jonathan Mackenzie and Judi Jones declared a conflict of interest and withdrew from the discussion.