Case Number: 823 ANNE PERRY AGAINST THE DOMINION
Council Meeting May 2001
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Anne Perry of Titahi Bay against The Dominion for publishing a letter from A. Thomas of Auckland on 15 January 2001.
On 3 January 2001 The Dominion editorial, "Free speech still fettered", welcomed the termination of David Lange's defamation action against North and South as a small step towards greater freedom of speech for the media, but saw the advance as slight and circumscribed. On 11 January it published a letter from Mrs Perry in which she said that the result of the Lange case was a cause for concern. Most commentators had welcomed the ending of the case as a victory for free speech, but she supported an unnamed commentator's view that qualified privilege, as now framed, is "an invitation for the media to lie and mislead." (Mrs Perry subsequently identified the commentator as Mr Michael Laws.)
Mrs Perry went on to say that "The media repeat and echo each other like so many latter-day Narcissuses, and like Narcissus, many of them are now in love with their own images. Any changes that make it more difficult for our representatives in Parliament to act with integrity and make unpopular decisions that are vital for the long-term future of our country is bad for us all." Her letter was well within proper bounds of comment. Nevertheless, it contained an unqualified attack on the integrity of media personnel.
Four days later The Dominion published a letter from A. Thomas, headed "Par for the course", which said that "... it would be useful for your readers to know that the Anne Perry who wrote against the David Lange case defamation finding, and who seemed to think, absurdly, that this was an invitation for the media to lie and mislead, is married to Frank Perry, a former New Zealand First media adviser." He added, "Isn't it misleading for Mrs Perry not to acknowledge her partner's former role as a lackey of the political party in a letter of this type?" For the reasons set out hereafter, this response can also be considered as falling within proper bounds of comment. Its questioning of Mrs Perry's credibility was direct and forceful, as her criticism of the media had been.
Mrs Perry complained that in publishing Mr Thomas's letter The Dominion had infringed several of the Press Council's principles. The letter deliberately sought to mislead readers into thinking that her views originated elsewhere and were politically motivated. Publishing information about her husband was intrusive on her right to privacy. To treat her views as linked to her husband's former employment was sexual discrimination. The offending letter had resulted in her being seen as someone "who defends politicians per se." She further claimed that the letter was not genuine but had been manufactured by the newspaper as part of an attack on her that began with an entry in The Dominion's diary column in June 2000. This paragraph had noted, in relation to a letter to the editor from her protesting against a Holmes Show comparison of Winston Peters to George Speight, that she was the wife of Winston Peters's press secretary.
The editor denied that there was any link with the Dom Diary entry seven months before. Mr Thomas had rung the newspaper complaining that it had not made Mrs Perry's relationship clear. His point of view was accepted as valid for a letter. If those dealing with letters had recalled the Diary item Mr Thomas's letter would probably not have been used. The duplication was unfortunate and the editor apologised to Mrs Perry for it.
Before the letter from Mr Thomas was printed the newspaper checked what it said about Mr Perry's occupation and twice inserted the word "former". Mrs Perry had been invited to point out factual inaccuracies in Mr Thomas's letter, and to send a letter for publication challenging Mr Thomas's assumption that her husband's former occupation determined her own views. She had done neither.
Mrs Perry had chosen to enter the letters-to-the-editor arena, and her forthright views had prompted an equally robust reply. The editor rejected the accusations of discrimination and lack of fair play in dealing with her. There was a letter from Mr Thomas and it had been subject to the usual editing and checking process.
Mrs Perry's complaint had two distinct but overlapping limbs. First, in her correspondence with the editor and the Press Council she insisted, on more than one occasion, that the letter of A. Thomas was "manufactured" for the purpose of continuing the vendetta that had begun in June 2000. In reply to this point the editor said, "The letter exists and was neither initiated nor sought by the newspaper." The Council accepts the editor's assurance on this matter. The second line of complaint was that Mr Thomas's letter should not have been published as it was an unwarranted attack on her independence in that it implied that her views were those of her husband.
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 a familiar one: strong opinions in an editorial evoked a vigorous letter expressing contrary views, which, in turn, produced further forthright letters. The Council notes that newspapers sometimes annotate letters to indicate the relationship of the writer to the person or group being discussed. The Dominion did not do this with Mrs Perry’s letter, but accepted Mr Thomas’s right to assert that “where she was coming from”, to use a familiar notion, was relevant to what she said.
Many would no doubt share Mrs Perry’s belief that she should be able to express her views without having them attributed to others’ influence, and in an ideal world that might happen. The reality is, however, that no one lives in that ideal world. Seeking to discount opponents’ arguments by giving them a context and questioning their motivation is a common practice in public debate.
The essence of the matter is that Mrs Perry’s disparaging remarks about the media’s integrity provoked an aggressive attack on her objectivity. In its Principle No. 12 the Press Council states that editors are to be guided in their selection and treatment of letters by “fairness, balance, and public interest in the correspondents’ views.” This is a robust principle that allows vigorous debate and the expression of strong emotions. The editorial was bound to trigger responses, ranging from the idealistic to the cynical, that showed how strongly people feel about politicians and the media. The Press Council does not consider that the editor should have intervened to block off Mr Thomas’s response to Mrs Perry’s letter. Readers could make up their own minds about the merits of the two letters.
The complaint is not upheld.