CASE NO: 2533
ADJUDICATION BY THE NEW ZEALAND PRESS COUNCIL ON THE COMPLAINTS OF DUNEDIN CITY COUNCIL AGAINST CRITIC TE AROHI
FINDING: UPHELD IN PART
Dunedin City Council complained about two stories in Critic, the student magazine of the Otago University Students' Association.
The articles were DCC accused of ‘active and wilful campaign to discourage student voters’ and Emails reveal DCC deception over 2013 voting booth decision, both published in Issue 15, 2016.
Although the two complaints were made separately, the subject matter was related and elements of both the complaints and the responses merged. The Press Council considered them together.
The Dunedin City Council said the articles breached Principles 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance; 4, Comment and Fact; 6, Headlines and Captions; 10, Conflicts of Interest and 12, Corrections.
In regard to Principles 1, 4 and 12, the complaints were upheld, in part at least. In regard to Principles 6 and 10, the complaints were not upheld.
Critic’s article headlined DCC accused of ‘active and wilful campaign to discourage student voters’ centred on negotiations between the Council and the Otago University Students’ Association over the provision of a special voting booth on the campus for the upcoming local government elections.
The local government elections in Dunedin are held by postal vote. However, according to the Critic story, special voting was particularly important to students, who might be registered to vote at old addresses, or in their home electorate.
The story says the Association pulled out of the arrangement because of demands from Council officials, which included the location of the booth and the need to have it supervised. It also suggested concern around how close incumbent mayoral candidate Dave Cull was to the process.
Instead, the Association planned an extensive initiative to promote voter enrolment and election participation among students. They would also point students to a Post Box on campus.
This initiative, according to Critic, also faced resistance from the Council because a bulk request for enrolment forms was denied and only provided ‘on a piecemeal basis’.
Critic relied heavily on the use of unnamed sources in its reporting, only directly quoting the Association’s Campaigns Officer Sean Gamble by name.
The second Critic story was based on a series of emails - sought in May 2016 under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act - sent/received ahead of the 2013 election.
It said the emails, between DCC Electoral Officer Pam Jordan and peers from other councils, showed the Dunedin City Council had misled and withheld information from the Association and the media about a decision not to place a special booth on campus in the 2013 election.
Critic said claims that the 2013 decision was based on the then president of the Association standing for Council were incorrect, and that the emails prove there were plans afoot to scrap the idea of a booth whether the president stood or not.
Council communications and marketing manager Graham McKerracher said Critic did not contact Jordan or Cull for a response to the story, in breach of Principle 1.
Critic further breached Principle 1 by using unnamed sources to quote unnamed council representatives, effectively fabricating comments and misleading readers.
There is a clear implication in the story that students are being disenfranchised by the lack of a voting booth on campus, but the magazine’s audience are not told the election is by postal vote until the end of the story.
Because the provision of enrolment forms is a matter for the Register of Electors rather than the DCC or its Electoral Officer, Critic breached Principle 4 because its information was factually incorrect.
Lastly, in regard to the ‘active and wilful campaign’ story, by quoting only Association representatives on an Association matter in an Association-sponsored publication, Critic had a clear conflict of interest and breached Principle 10.
In regard to the second story based on the 2013 election and emails, Critic further breached Principle 1 with its slanted statement that it ‘acquired’ the emails when they were provided as a result of a Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act request.
The second was prompted by an old Critic report, from 2013, which the Council argues was incorrect at the time so errors were rehashed. Proper reporting and fact-checking would have shown this.
The booth was declined because the then Association president, who had been advocating for the booth in 2013, stood for Council.
Both in 2013 and this year, the Council’s Electoral Officer was concerned that students could not promote candidates near the booth and that drop boxes for voting papers had to be attended and secure to ensure votes were protected.
The ‘deception’ headline in the second story breached Principle 6 because it effectively called the Electoral Officer a liar and implied she manipulated the electoral process and disadvantaged the voter.
Mr McKerracher also believed that, by not correcting errors and apologising to the Council and its Electoral Officer, it was in breach of Principle 12.
Editor Hugh Baird argues that, although the Electoral Officer and the Mayor were not directly quoted, the Electoral Officer’s position was referenced following interactions between her and the reporter.
Baird acknowledges the reporter made an error by confusing the Council’s obligations with that of the Register of Electors.
As far as a suggestion of conflict of interest, ‘Critic is completely independent of OUSA and there is no conflict of interest at all’.
Although the fact Dunedin City Council’s election was by postal vote was mentioned only in the last paragraph of one of the stories, it was mentioned.
Electoral Officer Pam Jordan was quoted from an email exchange between her and the reporter.
Lastly, comments about the Electoral Officer in the second story were not defamatory and Critic believed she was a liar, as illustrated by the 2013 emails.
Discussion and Decision
In general the Press Council has accommodated student magazines because of the genre. However, the Press Council considers that special consideration is reserved for satire and material specifically relevant to its student audience, not general news reports.
From the outset, the Press Council deemed these particular Critic articles as being subject to the same tests and standards as any other member organisation would face.
There are many claims in the two complaints and the Press Council will handle each one individually.
Principle 1 - Upheld, in part
Dunedin City Council representatives (specifically the Electoral Officer) should have been contacted for comment. The brief email exchange between the reporter and the Officer was not enough and Critic has an obligation to put all the relevant claims and comments, across both stories, to the Council for balance. A fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
Unnamed sources should be used only in cases where there is no alternative to telling a story that is in the public interest. The use of unnamed sources went too far in this case, particularly when used to support third hand commentary.
In itself it is not a requirement that relevant facts, ie that local government elections in Dunedin are held by postal vote, be carried high up in a story. Although it is worth noting that Critic’s audience would have been better served by the elevation of this detail in the story.
Critic’s statement that it had ‘acquired’ emails does not, as the DCC argues, suggest they were obtained via clandestine means.
Principle 4 - Upheld
Critic was wrong to suggest DCC or its Electoral Officer had refused the bulk request for enrolment forms, and the editor agrees. This error was not corrected.
Although not specifically relevant to Principle 4, the DCC is right to expect Critic to include the facts around the promotion of candidates near voting booths and the security of voting papers. Had proper opportunity been given to the Dunedin City Council, this could have been achieved with balancing comment.
Principle 6 - Not upheld
It is not for the Press Council to rule on claims of defamation. The headline matches the story and does not label the Electoral Officer a liar.
Principle 10 - Not upheld
While it is not useful for the editor to argue Critic’s complete independence from the Association, when by the publication’s own admission it is the ‘student magazine of the Otago University Students’ Association’, it cannot be said that an editorial arm of a media organisation cannot operate independently of its owner.
Principle 12 - Upheld
Critic was not required to apologise to the Electoral Officer, as the DCC argues, but it did need to correct an error of fact.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, and Tim Watkin.