ANDREW GEDDIS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 2615

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

  1. Andrew Geddis complains a New Zealand Listener editorial looking at drug laws breaches Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance). It was published on July 6.
  2. The complaint is not upheld.

Background

3. The Listener article was clearly an editorial, and was labelled as such.

4. Primarily, the editorial focused on various political positions on the decriminalisation of some drugs.

The Complaint

5. Mr Geddis complained there was no factual basis for the following claim within the editorial:

“Peter Dunne now advocates we follow Portugal’s state-controlled, medically supervised system with respect to the less-harmful drugs. This is wise counsel, but as the minister who presided over our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs – the oft-dangerous and increasingly potent synthetic drugs of ever-morphing formulation – he is a poor opinion leader. Under the regime he designed – since heavily modified – more young people used drugs than before, reassured that as synthetics were now legal, they were safer.”

6. Instead, he argued, the “regime” - the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 - made it harder to get the synthetic drugs by:

- Requiring it be proved new substances were safe before being sold, and limiting the number of those already on the market.

- Radically reducing the number of outlets retailing the drugs.

7. Mr Geddis challenged the Listener to prove more people used the drugs after the Act was passed.

8. Later in the complaint process he went on to point out that the synthetic drugs in question were already legal prior to the legislation, which served to regulate the market for them.

The Response

9. New Zealand Listener editor Pamela Stirling argued the Press Council’s Principle 5 (Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters) was also relevant in this case.

10. Ms Stirling said the editorial, in its entirety, looked at various approaches to reducing drug use and the effects of drugs on young people.

11. It was the view of the author that legalising drug use increased the risk of young people using it, both because of the ease of access to the drug and its perceived safety.

12. The editorial was balanced, well researched and based on study results and much anecdotal evidence. This laid a significant foundation of fact for the author’s opinion.

13. It was acknowledged that additional changes to the Psychoactive Substances Act could have resulted in a decrease in the use of the drugs by young people. But the point of the editorial was to highlight the effect of legalisation on young people’s drug use, and the potential damage to the development of their brains.

14. The Listener offered - or, as Ms Stirling said, urged - Mr Geddis to write a letter to the editor outlining his objection to the editorial.

15. Lastly, in response to Mr Geddis’ point that the synthetic drugs were already legal, Ms Stirling argued they were legal only because they were, at that point, unclassified. They didn’t yet have the ‘endorsement’ of Parliamentary permission; the legal status which could be interpreted by young people as a signal of safety.

The Decision

16. The editor has advised that substantial anecdotal evidence was drawn on to support the author’s opinion. This included information from police, parents, members of parliament, local mayors and principals. While this may not be empirical evidence the Council considers it sufficient to base an opinion on.

17. The Council puts little stock in the semantics of synthetic drugs being ‘legal’ prior to the legislation. It is quite clear the author was looking at the impact of an overt ‘legal’ label which came only with the passing of the Act, and the potential that it would be perceived as a safety tick by young people. Effectively, synthetics were legal before the legislation only because they had not yet been declared otherwise.

18. Furthermore, and possibly more importantly, the prior legal status is not a matter which would have led the audience to misinterpret the intent or angle of the editorial.

19. But, in reaching its decision, the Council relies most strongly on the author’s right to freely express his or her opinion, and the public interest that is served in editorialising on such an important matter.

20. Both the author of The Listener’s editorial and Mr Geddis are equally entitled to their opinions.

21. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tuimalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.