Council money story OK

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NZ Press Council scores 1-1 draw in QLDC v ‘Scene’ contest.

The New Zealand Press Council has rejected a complaint by Queenstown Lakes District Coun­­­cil over a January story headlined Quangos Are Costing Us.

“QLDC’s own approach [to Mountain Scene] hardly encouraged a cordial exchange and the newspaper acted properly in seeking another opinion to test its interpretations of material in [QLDC’s] annual report,” the Press Council says this week.

“Nor is it improper for a publication to take an adversarial stance, as it appears Mountain Scene tends to do.”

Local bodies and newspapers often wrangle over financial affairs but “part of a newspaper’s role [is] to cast a critical eye on such matters”, the ruling says.

The story covered increases in QLDC costs and charges, debt and an overall surplus recorded by the council and its quangos.

After QLDC objected to 10 “serious issues”, Mountain Scene corrected one figure and referred the complaint to accounting expert Professor Alan Robb.

Robb’s response, headlined QLDC Comes Up Short, dis­­­-missed QLDC’s complaint and criticised its financial reporting.

His published findings and a further article triggered the Press Council complaint. “It is difficult to take issue with Mountain Scene’s decision to seek an outside source [Robb] to examine QLDC’s response to its story,” the Press Council finds.

QLDC objected to Robb’s opinion being published as an adju­­­­dication, and describing him as a former Canterbury University accounting professor without disclosing he was paid for his opinion – but these grizzles “lack real substance”, the Press Council says.

The verdict also validates Mountain Scene using “coining it” to describe QLDC surpluses, and labelling council subsidiaries “quangos”. QLDC may not like the words but they’re not misleading or inaccurate, says the news­paper industry’s ruling body.

Significantly, the Press Council dismisses what QLDC called “the heart of the problem” – Mountain Scene and Robb not seeking further information from QLDC and relying solely on its annual report.

Noting Mountain Scene’s submission that an annual report is QLDC’s “principal financial reporting document for the Crown”, the Press Council concludes: “The newspaper is therefore justified in restricting its story to the report.” Mountain Scene also told readers that’s where figures in the story came from.

Readers may have been better served if the paper had appr­­­oached QLDC, the Press Council says, but QLDC was “hardly cordial” and Mountain Scene “acted properly” in going to Robb.

 

Paper pinged over spraying article

A Press Council verdict on another Queenstown Lakes District Council complaint has gone against Mountain Scene.

A lack of balance and an ambiguous headline featured in a February story, Spray Victims – Speak Out. A subsequent date correction, though prompt, was “wholly inadequate”.

“This news story needed balance and careful checking, suggesting as it did that a local authority’s action might be to blame for causing harm to someone,” says this week’s verdict.

“The article contained alarming suggestions and QLDC was entitled to have the suggestions put to it before publication.”

The story covered aerial spraying on Queenstown Hill, reporting a resident suffering headaches, swollen eyes, sore throat and breathing difficulties. The article called for others to come forward.

Not only were the claims wrong, QLDC complained, they were impossible – the wind was blowing away from Queenstown Hill homes and there was no way spray drift could have reached the resident’s property.

QLDC told the Press Council Mountain Scene failed to adequately correct its error or apologise, and the headline used the plural “victims” when QLDC disputed there were any victims at all.

“[The headline] may be read as a call for spray victims to speak out. It may just as easily mean spray victims are speaking out,” says the Press Council.

“This complaint says much about the lack of a good working relationship between Mountain Scene and QLDC.”