New Zealand Law Society - Reliance on Commerce Commission statement "lazy journalism" says Press Council

Reliance on Commerce Commission statement "lazy journalism" says Press Council

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The Press Council has upheld (with dissent) a complaint against the Whakatane Beacon newspaper over its publication of a story about the sentencing of two companies operating a chain of stores.

In Lindekilde v Whakatane Beacon (Case 2588), the Beacon story was published in late March 2017 and covered the Auckland District Court sentencing of Bike Retail Group and Bikes International, joint operators of Bike Barn New Zealand, in February 2017.

The Beacon story was largely based on the Commerce Commission's reaction to the judgment. Both companies had pleaded guilty to charges brought by the Commission under the Fair Trading Act and were fined $800,000. The charges related to conduct between 2013 and 2015 which effectively attracted customers with misleading impressions about discounts on bikes.

A photograph of the Whakatane branch of Bike Barn was featured in the Beacon story, under a headline which read "Bike Barn fined for misleading pricing" and a final paragraph which pointed out the location of the Whakatane store.

At the time Whakatane's Bike Barn was owned by Lindekilde Industries and the story did not include information about the specific ownership of the Whakatane store, which is one of five independently-owned branches out of 20 operating in New Zealand. The remaining 15 are owned by the two prosecuted companies.

The Press Council says the almost sole reliance on the Commerce Commission statement was lazy journalism at best. "A simple phone call or visit to the store would have clarified ownership".

It says it is very clear that Whakatane's Bike Barn, and its owner, was not prosecuted by the Commerce Commission.

"It is a big stretch for the editor to argue that, because the story didn't specifically say that Whakatane's store was involved in the court action, it wasn't implied. The story also didn't specifically say it wasn't involved - and given the copy was wrapped around a large photo of the store, under a 'Bike Barn fined...' headline and referenced the local outlet - it was very much implied," it says.

"It is not for the editor to determine as fact, and by way of a general news story, that Whakatane Bike Barn benefited from deceitful advertising practices. That is a role of the courts. Again we point out that Whakatane Beacon conducted no investigation and provided no evidence to support their claim."

Press Council member Chris Darlow dissented from the decision.