ALWYN HUNT AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2493

Council Meeting: MARCH 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Comment and Fact
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Alwyn Hunt says a Paul Little column in the Herald on Sunday on February 14 about a private school’s promotional billboard was inaccurate, spiteful and damaging.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background

Little’s column was an opinion piece, headlined ‘School’s message hits a sour note’.

The column looks at a billboard used to promote King’s School, featuring the words ‘The World Is His’ above an image of a pupil holding the world in his hand.

Little suggests the King’s message is that, should a child attend the school, they will be able to do anything. He says it is elitist and out of touch.

The column goes on to suggest that such an elitist approach fails to make students good people, and instead just puts them in a controlling position; breeding a ‘generation of selfish, entitled and arrogant young people’.

It infers the billboard’s placement, in Ponsonby, is no coincidence. It is home to those who could afford a King’s education.

The print version of the column and the initial digital version incorrectly referred to King’s College, an Otahuhu-based high school, rather than King’s School, a Remuera-based primary school. Both are exclusive private schools.

Online, the column was corrected to refer to the primary school. In print, a correction was carried alongside the next week’s Little column.

The Complaint

The complainant says the billboard was eye-catching but, rather than what Little took from it, she felt the message was one of hope for the future and an illustration of what a wonderful world we live in.

Little’s column was spiteful and inaccurate and was damaging to the reputation of both King’s School and King’s College.

References in print, and initially online, to a parent needing to travel 15km each way to King’s ‘in the Range Rover’ were wrong. That was the distance to the college, where as the school was much closer.

The Response

Herald on Sunday deputy editor Stuart Dye responded to the Press Council.

The column - clearly identifiable as an opinion piece - was a forthright opinion on the billboard’s message as taken by Little.

From the outset, the error of fact in regards to the school versus the college was accepted: ‘ It was one reference at the beginning of the column’.

Once the Herald on Sunday was alerted to the mistake, the column was removed online, clarified, corrected and re-posted once Little confirmed that, while reference to the school was wrong, his view of the billboard remained. A correction was also run in print the following week.

The corrections were made quickly and prominently.

There was no more important principle than freedom of expression, and Little was entitled to his opinion.

The Decision

As has been stated before by the Press Council, a complainant does not have the right not to be offended.

The media closely guards freedom of expression and the Council gives primary consideration to that freedom, and public interest.

The copy was identifiable as an opinion piece.

Principle 4 (Comment and Fact) does require material facts on which an opinion is based to be accurate.

There was an error of fact in the Little column which, despite the deputy editor’s contention that it was only a single error, did lead to further errors around the travel times between Ponsonby and the school.

In keeping with Principle 12 (Corrections), the error was corrected promptly and with fair prominence.

The Council accepts the confusion about the different schools in this case would not affect the author’s sentiment in the column.

For the reasons above, the complaint is not upheld but the Council notes that but for the speedy correction the Council would have upheld on inaccuracy of a material fact.

However, it should be noted by the Herald on Sunday that Little’s fact checking of a primary point in his column, regardless of whether that point was relevant or subsequently corrected, was nothing short of sloppy.

The flippant “insert-school-name-here” approach that was taken by the columnist was cavalier and not in accordance with the highest professional standards that the Press Council seeks to maintain in the media.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan and Jenny Farrell took no part in the consideration of this complaint.