Image for Hodgman criticises The Mercury for cable car reporting

Last Monday’s edition of The Mercury featured an article claiming the Hodgman government “has backed down from a promise to pay for a feasibility study into a cable car on Mt Wellington”. (In the hard copy edition the story – titled “Libs axe cable car pledge: party rescinds 2010 election promise to pay for feasibility study” – occupied the prime news position at the top of page 3.)

The story by Hannah Martin stated that ahead of the 2010 election the Liberal Party pledged $200,000 for a feasibility study for a cable car. The story then went on to state:

“but having won government, the party has changed its mind. ‘A feasibility study is the responsibility of a development’s proponent,’ a spokeswoman said yesterday. ‘As it stands, there is no formal proposal for the project.’”

The online version of the story featured a file photo from 2013 of cable car proponent Adrian Bold with a copy of his “Concept Plan” for the project. The caption to the photo stated: “Adrian Bold said he was unable to make comment on the Liberal Party’s change of heart over paying for a feasibility study into a cable car on Mt Wellington.”

While the story mentioned only the Liberals pre-election commitment from 2010, when the late Tim Burbury was pushing the project, peculiarly it made no mention of the position the Liberals took to the 2014 election.

In its well-publicised and advertised ‘plan’ released ahead of the 2014 election, the Liberal Party committed itself to “change the Wellington Park management plan – remove Trust’s veto power” and pledged to “say ‘yes’ to sensible development that creates jobs, including tourism development in national parks and sensible development on Mt Wellington.”

Clearly, well ahead of the 2014 election the Liberal Party’s policy specifically addressed support for changing the Wellington Park Trust plan to allow for a cable car. However, the pre-2010 election commitment to using taxpayer funds for a feasibility study was gone.

So how did The Mercury get it so wrong?

Adrian Bold from the Mt Wellington Cable Car Company told TT that, as he had already completed a feasibility study in mid-2013, the Liberals 2010 policy of funding support for such a study was “redundant”. “I have no idea where that story has come from,” he said. The Liberal Party’s original policy, Bold said, pre-dated his involvement with the project.

Bold told TT that when Hannah Martin contacted him on Sunday evening, he was asked about a number of issues relating to his project but not the change of the Liberal Party policy relating to funding for a feasibility study.

Martin confirmed to TT that Bold’s version was correct and that she hadn’t asked him about the difference between the 2010 and 2014 versions of the Liberal Party’s promises.

In a letter to the editor of The Mercury, Premier Will Hodgman stated that the original report was “wrong and misleading” and demanded that the record be corrected.

Error? What error?

In the deadline-driven world of journalism, it is always easy to make inadvertent mistakes. In this case it was clear that both the story and the photo caption were wrong and that a correction was clearly warranted.

The Mercury published Hodgman’s letter but appended an “editor’s note” at the foot of it stating that:

“The “story made it clear that the promise was made in the lead up to the 2010 election. The story at no point said the Government had broken a pre-2014 election commitment.”

The first sentence of The Mercury’s defence is literally correct but fails to address the concern that readers can be misled by the omission of important information. 

The second sentence of the ‘editor’s note’ though was wrong - the original story clearly stated “but having won government, the party has changed its mind.” The only way to read that sentence is that the Hodgman government changed its policy after the 2014 election and that the 2010 promise was still current in 2014. Otherwise, The Mercury had devoted prime page 3 news space to a policy change which at best was months old and, as Adrian Bold said, “irrelevant” to his proposal.

In the absence of an acknowledgement of its error, readers are entitled to wonder what exactly the agenda of The Mercury is. Was The Mercury article aimed at putting pressure on Hodgman to promise to provide financial support to Bold’s cable car project even though he is adamant he hasn’t asked for it and doesn’t want it? Or is The Mercury pushing the government to provide funding for a new feasibility study on the assumption that Bold’s project may well falter due to a lack of funding or a project partner?

Whatever the agenda, the story certainly wasn’t “news”.

On the day the article ran Bold’s Mt Wellington Cable Car Company Tweeted “What an obsolete article. #politas The photo even shows Adrian holding the feasibility study done last year!” 

Asked if he thought the story was a beat up, Bold told TT “absolutely.” (TT sought a comment from the Hodgman government but they did not respond).