ALLAN CHESSWAS AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 1095

Council Meeting: JUNE 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

Introduction:
Allan Chesswas complained to the Press Council that a column in the Sunday Star-Times of February 25, 2007, by columnist Finlay Macdonald headed “A blow for debate” breached the council’s principle of accuracy. The complaint is not upheld.

Background:
On that day, Mr Macdonald wrote in his regular column in the Sunday Star-Times about the debate raging throughout the country at the time on the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Bill before Parliament, which sought to repeal Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961. The opening paragraph was: “The so-called ‘smacking debate’ obviously ceased to be a debate in any meaningful sense long ago. Sides have been taken, attitudes have hardened, there’s little room for reason or rational argument any more.”
The column discussed aspects of the debate from both sides, and in general lamented the level of debate.

Mr Chesswas took issue in an email dated February 27 to the Sunday Star-Times. He disagreed with parts of the column, including Mr Macdonald’s view that the Bill was “wrongly-labelled ‘anti-smacking’ ” legislation.
Mr Chesswas said Mr Macdonald himself had stated the specific intent of the Bill was to send a “clear message that physical discipline is unacceptable” while the Bill’s purpose was “to make better provision for children to live in a safe and secure environment free from violence by abolishing the use of parental force for the purpose of correction.” (The origin of the first “clear message” quotation is unclear – Mr Macdonald himself used quotation marks and they appear to have been a reference to what the promoter of the Bill, Ms Sue Bradford MP, had said.)
Mr Chesswas continued that Mr Macdonald had also stated that if it was an anti-smacking bill, there would have been specific references to smacking becoming an offence. Mr Chesswas argued in his email that it was surely obvious that the abolition of parental force meant smacking would “no longer exist as a concept and what we consider a smack will be considered under the law as assault.”
He believed Mr Macdonald’s column was not factual, lacked objectivity and balance and parties had been misrepresented. He sought a correction from the newspaper.

In response on March 1, the newspaper’s deputy editor invited Mr Chesswas to write a letter to the editor and, after a further exchange, a letter critical of the column was published in the newspaper on March 4. However, the deputy editor declined to publish a correction. On March 1, Mr Chesswas complained to the Press Council.

The Complaint:
In his letter to the Press Council, Mr Chesswas reiterated his points about the Bill’s aims and Mr Macdonald’s description of it as “wrongly-labelled ‘anti-smacking’ ” legislation. “While Macdonald hedges all of his statements quite effectively, it is clear his main point is that the proposed amendment will not criminalise smacking.”
The Bill’s purpose was to abolish the use of parental force for the purpose of correction, Mr Chesswas said, and “it is very clear that ‘smacking’ and ‘parental force’ meant the same thing. He gave Oxford dictionary definitions of ‘Smack” (“a sharp blow given with the palm of the hand”) and Parental Force (“physical strength or energy as a attribute of action or movement (force) . . . of a father or mother (parental).” The definition of “parental force” included within its bounds the definition of “smack.”
“The nature of Section 59 is that it provides a specific reference to smacking not being an offence because without this provision, it would by definition be assault.” Without Section 59, police would have no option but to interpret a smack as an assault.
In his view, Mr Macdonald had published an ignorant and/or misleading fabrication, thus breaching the Press Council principle on accuracy.

The Newspaper’s response
The Deputy Editor, in her response to the Council, said Mr Chesswas was as entitled to his opinion as Mr Macdonald was to his. The column had simply made the point that the real purpose of the Bill was to remove the “reasonable force” defence in child discipline from the Crimes Act rather than to make smacking illegal per se.
The paper had declined to publish a correction because it did not agree the columnist had made an error of fact. But it had published Mr Chesswas’ letter to the editor at the first available opportunity.

Conclusion
The debate over the removal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act divided the country, and opinions on both sides were firmly fixed. It is not for the Press Council to decide what legislation might or might not mean. Nor can it take into account what happened subsequently with the passing of the legislation.
The Council has consistently emphasised freedom of expression and this complaint firmly falls into that category. As a columnist, Mr Macdonald was perfectly entitled to express the views he did. They were reasonably expressed and contained some balance (not that this is required in an opinion column).
The Sunday Star-Times had no reason to print a correction in such circumstances and it allowed Mr Chesswas to make his points with a letter to the editor. This was a satisfactory outcome.
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean and Alan Samson.