On Thursday the Dominion Post published a story critical of the fees the Wellington City Council charged Lions fans to park camper vans in the city. A few hours later the Council gave back double. Duncan Greive reports on a brawl in the capital.
Variations on the phrase “never argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel” have been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill, with an obscure Republican congressman the most likely inventor. Yesterday the Wellington City Council decided to ignore the maxim in a very public way, “calling out” what the council characterised as “seriously irresponsible journalism” by Wellington’s daily newspaper, the Dominion Post.
This is – I think this is the right phrase – deeply fucking weird. Councils have large communications staff and produce a phenomenal body of written material, the vast majority of it purposefully and studiedly bland. This is a typical sentence of this mostly unread tributary of the written word: “this is a great opportunity to connect with Sir Peter Blake’s legacy and the work that is happening daily to increase environmental awareness among young people and the public.”
The WCC’s story was not like that.
It gives the council’s version of events in an entertaining style, before editorialising thus: “The DomPost should hang its head in shame for running such a sloppy, useless and frankly ill-considered story that’s brought Wellington into disrepute.”
The original Dom Post story was quite full on too. It said the “toilets, 300 metres away over a muddy field, smelled of urine” and that Lions fans were “being forced to pay £75 (about $130) a night to park their campervans on Wellington City Council land” [emphasis added]. It was strong stuff – but not markedly different from the kind of coverage local government receives the world over.
Unsurprisingly, the Dominion Post was not pleased with being told their story was “sloppy, useless”. Executive editor Sinead Boucher replied on Twitter, suggesting “perhaps the ‘call out’ could have started with a call to the editor (who firmly stands by the story) instead of a PR smear.”
There has since been a volume of communication between Fairfax, publishers of the Dominion Post and the council. Fairfax’s central region editor-in-chief Bernadette Courtney told The Spinoff that “the general tenor from the council was that we would have to agree to disagree,” she wrote. “At no stage was a correction sought.” Late Friday Courtney told The Spinoff that “an email has come to us outlining what [the WCC] term are factual inaccuracies,” though she also added pointedly “there is still no request for a correction”.
The Spinoff has been supplied the email Courtney sent to Wellington City Council CEO Kevin Lavery, which you can read here. “I am astounded that the council’s media unit chose to take this action without any discussion with the news director or indeed myself,” she writes. “This is contrary to the way we operate as a media organisation and contrary to what occurred in the reporting of this story – we contacted the council for comment.”
I asked the WCC’s Richard Maclean why the Council had chosen to go direct to its public, rather than litigating the matter privately. “Given the amount of vile abuse we were getting, and given that we were being treated so unfairly we wanted to get it out quickly,” he said. “We’ve done it before, but we do it incredibly rarely.”
Both stories were widely distributed socially, which to an extent explains the pace at which the WCC acted. Even if the Dom Post were inclined to run a correction – which seems highly unlikely, to be fair – it would have run the following day and only flashed past the Stuff homepage, if it made it there at all. It’s also very hard being council: people moan about rate rises, yet when you find an alternative source of revenue – which no one is forced to pay, incidentally – you get slammed for it.
That said, the aggression of the Council response implies that we might be cresting a new frontier in local government media strategies. Earlier this year the Hamilton City Council remonstrated with the Waikato Times over its coverage of a crashed car which had sat wedged in a man’s fence for a week. The Council went public with their “truth… to prevent further unwarranted negative comments about our staff and actions”.
While it’s somehow both a cliché and a giant stretch to compare New Zealand local government with Trump’s administration, it does feel like both Hamilton and Wellington’s comms departments have awoken to the fact that should they disagree with reporting on their work, they can tell their side of the story using just as emotive an angle as a journalist would. They, too, can cry “fake news”. And given the pace with which stories flame and then die online, and the chasm in scale between an incorrect fact and its correction, it’s entirely understandable that they might take the opportunity to defend themselves. Or, as Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it, “when attacked he’s going to hit back”.
Still, while “sloppy, useless” is no “bleeding badly from a face-lift”, it is on the same continuum of alternative facts and interpretation. And it seems odd for a city with as liberal a constitution as Wellington to be taking style tips of any form from the current White House.
The Spinoff understands that conversations between Fairfax and the WCC are ongoing, and as we publish the council has not responded to questions about the specific points of fact they dispute. The public, to the extent it’s aware of the dispute all, is unlikely to be able to pick a favourite out of actors as universally unloved as journalists and bureaucrats.
Right now, neither side is budging, and more may yet emerge from the fight. But while it’s fun to watch this kind of explosion from afar from time to time, a permanent change in relations between councils and the papers which cover them to this kind of mutual antagonism would likely suck for both organisations – and the ratepayers and newsreaders caught between them.
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