A complaint from the chairman of the National Party’s Northcote branch against the North Shore Times Advertiser, has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Mr Bill Plunkett was upset by what he saw as “blatant political bias” in an article published in January, canvassing the chances of various candidates at this year’s general election. The article suggested it could be a close race given the responses to both Labour and Alliance in the electorate, and the outcome of last year’s local body election.

The incumbent MP is Ian Revell, until recently Parliament’s deputy Speaker.

Mr Plunkett complained to the newspaper that the article contained two major errors:
 It said Mr Revell’s majority was “particularly slim in 1996; and that
 Former North Shore Mayor Anne Hartley had come a close second to George Wood, the new North Shore Mayor elected last October.

Mr Plunkett argued that Mr Revell’s majority in 1996 was about 4,500 votes, and Mr Wood’s, about 2,400. He strongly urged the paper, in the interests of accuracy and balance, to publish prominently, his letter setting out those points. If the paper refused, he said, he would go to the Press Council.

The editor wrote to Mr Plunkett, saying a correction of the first matter would run as soon as possible, but explaining why the newspaper believed Mrs Hartley had come close to re-taking the mayoralty last year.

He also said the paper was always happy to correct errors – it invited readers to contact its executives by regularly publishing their photos and phone numbers – and that he was neither impressed nor fazed by threats of Press Council involvement.

The newspaper then published a correction, setting out the issue of Mr Revell’s 1996 majority, explaining the article should have been referring to 1993 when Mr Revell held a slim margin of 104 votes over Mrs Hartley.

Mr Plunkett was unmollified and complained to the Press Council about, among other issues, bias and a lack of a right of reply. He also said he doubted the editor ever published letters critical of him or the paper, a claim the editor firmly rejected.

In his response to the Press Council, the editor defended the article. He said that when a National Party stalwart like former Minister George Gair had won the mayoralty in 1995 by 14,000 votes and was then beaten into third place in 1998, that surely showed a shift from traditional support, no matter how unpalatable Mr Plunkett found that in election year.

In later correspondence to the Council, both men stuck to their guns, Mr Plunkett saying publication of his letter would have provided accuracy and balance. The editor responded that while the paper took care with accuracy and was quick to rectify mistakes, that did not necessarily involve publishing in full letters of complaint.

The Council did not uphold the complaint. It said the article was an unexceptional account on a matter of public interest, which contained one factual error. The paper had corrected its mistake at the first opportunity, but was quite entitled to draw the conclusion it had from last year’s local body election results.

Mr Plunkett was free to submit a letter for publication and the North Shore Times Advertiser was equally free to choose not to print it. Choice of which letters were selected for publication remained a matter for editorial discretion.


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