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Press Council bouquet

By Steven | March 12, 2008

I’ve been hard on the Press Council lately. I tend to blog about the stuff I disagree with. But usually, I think the members of the Press Council get it right. In the latest bunch of decisions, they ping the Northern Outlook for misreporting local council committee hearings. One mistake was put right in a later story, without reference to the earlier error. Was that enough? The Press Council said:

the second report did not go far enough to correct the misleading impression of the first story. It made no reference to the first, incorrect, report and may well have left readers confused about two apparently conflicting stories concerning the fate of the proposed new set fee.

They also found the paper in error when it said that the committee had “shied away again” from deciding a particular issue. Yet the Press Council found that there was nothing to support this impression that the committee was unwilling or unable to make the decision; the deferral may not have been a “shying away”.

I’m not familiar with the nuances of the events and the coverage here. But it’s not uncommon for the press to carelessly sling about perjorative language under the guise of neutral reporting. In the past the Press Council has usually let this pass. For example, when a paper accused a political candidate of trying to “fabricate an issue where non [sic] exists”, the Press Council in 2001 accepted the argument that this simply meant “build” an issue – there was “no negative connotation”. This seems unreal.

The latest decision may be signalling a more robust approach. But hair-splitting about language can be taken too far: in this case the Press Council says that a paper has latitude to characterise an ERO report as saying a school was “excelling” when the report was at least “largely complimentary” of the school.

Two for two, I say.

Finally, this case split the Council. I’m not surprised.  What do you do when someone submits an ambiguous letter, you publish in edited form, apparently preserving its key point, but it turns out that the letter-writer meant it in a different way, and when you take a look at it again, you can see his point? 

Here’s the letter:

The very strong reason to reappoint Graham Henry is that he has now participated in a World Rugby Cup as coach and knows the pressures, the need for a cool head and how to make decisions under pressure. That is experience beyond a price.

It was precisely because they had the same experience playing in the previous World Cup, that Aaron Mauger should have started and Reuben Thorne should have been on the bench against France.

The paper published the first paragraph, thinking that second paragraph seemed peripheral, but the basic point was fair enough.

The letter-writer fumed that the second paragraph was his basic point, and the first paragraph was highlighting the irony.

The majority felt that the editing was not unfair.  Nor was the paper’s refusal to publish a correction or acknowledgment, though it wasn’t very gracious.

Two members dissented, saying that the original editing may not have been unfair because of the ambiguity, but the Press should have published a correction once the writer had made his true views known. The two dissenters (including the chair, Barry Paterson) said elegantly, and I think fairly persuasively:

It left on record a statement from Mr Meates which did not express his view. It was no answer, and in the members’ view disingenuous, to say that the publication did not change the meaning of the first paragraph, when publishing only that one paragraph had the effect of completely reversing the implication in Mr Meates’ letter when read in its entirety. The members would have upheld on failure to correct.

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