Case Number: 1086 FREDA BRIGGS AGAINST THE PRESS
Council Meeting APRIL 2007
Professor (Emeritus) Freda Briggs complained to the Press Council that three Letters to the Editor published in The Press made untrue and professionally slanderous statements and insinuations about her and that the editor had maintained the exchange of correspondence despite being provided with her CV and other information about her professional background and standing.
The complaint is upheld on grounds of a lack of fairness.
Freda Briggs is Emeritus Professor in Child Development, Researcher, and Lecturer in Social Development, Child Protection and Family Studies (part time), at the University of South Australia, Magill Campus. With Professor Russell Hawkins, then Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, she published a paper, Safety issues in the lives of children with learning disabilities in the Ministry of Social Development’s Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, November 2006 (Volume 29 pp 43-59). The research, conducted at undesignated special schools in New Zealand for the New Zealand Police had involved Professor Hawkins in both design of the interview schedule and data analysis. Their findings had been presented at the Australasian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect at Wellington in February 2006.
A central finding was that “while school counselors indicated that 44% of girls at the schools were victims of (substantiated) sexual abuse, only 32% of female respondents disclosed these offences to researchers.”
The Social Policy Journal of New Zealand clearly states that papers must be approved by an editorial committee and further subjected to double-blind peer review involving no fewer than two assessors before being published.
The article, Professor Briggs stated, was publicised “responsibly” both by the New Zealand Herald and Radio NZ National. Following this publicity, there was significant speculation about which of the New Zealand special schools had been the focus for the research.
On 26 January, The Press published a letter from Professor Briggs which she wrote to attempt to bring a halt the speculation about which schools had been involved in the research. She suggested that Ministers and senior bureaucrats, rather than seeking to identify which schools had been involved, should be asking ‘What can we do about it?’ She maintained “all New Zealand teachers and early childhood professionals should be trained to recognize the signs of abuse and to handle and report them sensitively…New Zealand has the best school-based child protection programme in the world…children with severe learning disabilities can be taught their rights and recognize and report inappropriate behaviour. All children should have the opportunity to live in a safer world”
On 3 February 2007, The Press published a letter from a Masterton correspondent, expressing doubt that Ms Briggs’ research has been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. “Any expert worth their salt knows that there are no signs or behaviours that are symptomatic of child sexual abuse …I understand Freda Briggs is an avowed believer in the ritual abuse phenomenon …it is generally regarded as a myth ….politicians, teachers, parents and police should steer well clear of Ms Briggs. She is not an appropriate person to lecture us on how to identify or prevent child sexual abuse”.
Ms Briggs responded to the editor on 6 February, complaining about what she considered “defamatory garbage” in the published letter. The editor should have first checked the facts. “The research in question was published in your New Zealand Social Issues Journal”. She attached her CV and asked that the paper publish an immediate apology for “this disgraceful piece of journalism”.
On 9 February, the editor rejected the need to apologise as he had “no cause to believe that the writer’s opinion was not genuinely held”, but agreed to publish an edited version of her response “in the interests of fairness and balance”.
This response (written by her university’s legal adviser) was duly published, in edited form, the next day. Professor Briggs accepted that the writer had a right to express an opinion, “but no right to discredit my credentials as a researcher in the field of child protection without doing his homework”. It explained how one became a professor, gave the background to the publication of the research, her employment history, her considerable experience in child protection work and evidence of a long, extensive publications record.
On 17 February The Press published a further letter from the previous correspondent, casting doubt on Briggs’ research, claiming that her figures had not been substantiated and that her findings had appeared in what is “basically a newsletter for social policy analysts.” Important details were missing making it unsuitable for publication in any reputable journal; an online search suggested that Briggs had published ten journal articles since 1982, rather than hundreds of articles as she had claimed. “As far as I know she has published no research into the interviewing of child abuse victims. Researchers are required to be ethical and impartial. From what I’ve seen I’m not sure that Freda Briggs is either”.
The Press Council notes that it may not have received all correspondence around this issue. However, on 20 February, under the banner “Steer Clear of Her” a letter from a Dunedin correspondent was published. This stated, “Some people achieve prominence through the quality of their work. Others achieve the same result by bullying their critics into silence. Freda Briggs’ reply (Feb 10) ….. [to the letter of] (Feb 3) suggests to me that she falls into the latter category” The letter-writer supported the central premise of the 3 Feb letter and added that the letter-writer had been right in advising [various parties] to steer clear of her.
Professor Briggs’s complaint is that it was irresponsible to publish untrue and professionally slanderous statements and insinuations in ‘Letters to the Editor’ without making simple checks relating to their accuracy; and to persist in publishing such statements after receiving factual information disproving the allegations - her CV, a faxed copy of the article in question and evidence that it had been peer-refereed.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor cited legal opinion to the effect that there was a defence against defamation where writers were expressing their honest opinion, and that opinion had a basis of fact. The paper had ensured that this was so.
Further, the letters column is a forum for debate – often vigorous debate. Dispute about facts or interpretation of facts, is at its core. Correspondents are always given space to put the record straight.
In Professor Briggs’ case, her beliefs, research and activities are controversial and that controversy was reflected in what correspondents wrote.
What they wrote was less emphatic than Professor Briggs intimates. What she habitually saw as the defamatory assertion of incorrect facts was really the assertion of vigorous opinion.
He cited examples from the letters in question which were comments on the paper published in the Journal, not on her career as a whole. The fact that the Professor and one other wrote a foreword endorsing a book on Ritual Abuse and Torture in Australia at least implied that she was a believer in ritual abuse.
The editor claimed that The Press had given Professor Briggs unlimited opportunity to debate the points made by other correspondents. The newspaper had published the three letters received from her and almost all the letters received in her defence.
The publication of her first letter (considerably longer than the number of words usually allowed) was given extended space because of the special interest of many Christchurch people in child abuse, as a result of the Peter Ellis case.
That same consideration – strong public interest – encouraged the newspaper to print the vigorous correspondence that followed Professor Briggs’ first letter. The professor is a controversial and high profile academic specializing in a contentious issue. In such circumstances, her research and advocacy is bound to come under scrutiny. The Press did no more than provide a forum for that debate.
Newspapers have a particular duty to encourage debate on issues of interest and importance to their communities. One site for such debate is in the Letters to the Editor. The Press Council has upheld the right of editors to publish, or not to publish, such letters.
The Press Council has observed several times that freedom of speech is sometimes seen at its most raw in the letters section of newspapers. The sequence in this complaint is familiar: strong opinions expressed in Professor Briggs’ initial letter about the need to train teachers and early childhood workers to recognize the signs of child abuse evoked a vigorous letter expressing contrary views, which, in turn, produced further forthright letters.
However, in this case, the views expressed in the letters complained of went further than vigorous debate; they also questioned Professor Briggs’s professional background, integrity and competence, and the level of these attacks did not abate in the second and third letters. A professional working in a highly controversial area, can expect criticism and questioning and Professor Briggs will be well aware of this. She took steps to advise the editor of her academic and professional background, and the editor did publish an edited version of her letter.
The Council has held in the past that editors are not responsible for the accuracy of facts contained in a letter, but here the editor had received information prior to the publication of the 17 February letter which ought to have put him on his guard as to the accuracy of some of the statements in the subsequent letters.
The Press Council’s Principle 12 in relation to letters recognizes that selection and treatment are the prerogative of editors who should be guided by considerations of fairness, balance and public interest. In this case the Council finds that balance seems to have been achieved through publication of the communications The Press received from Professor Briggs and supporter[s] – although, as stated, it may not have seen the full coverage. There is likewise an undoubted element of public interest in these matters.
Nevertheless, the Council finds that Professor Briggs was unfairly treated when the editor published the letters of 17 and 20 February when he had been previously advised of the professional standing of the complainant. The publication of these letters prolonged an attack on Professor Brigg’s professional integrity, and did not contribute further to the debate on a controversial issue.
The Press Council therefore upholds the complaint on grounds of a lack of fairness.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean and Lynn Scott.
Aroha Beck and Alan Samson took no part in the consideration of this complaint.