BEREND de BOER AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2572

Council Meeting: APRIL 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

This complaint relates to an online article published by the New Zealand Herald on March 10, 2017 entitled:Auckland University 'white pride' group sparks concern, and some later additions including a video interview.

The article focused on a new group set up at the university, The European Students Association (ESA). Its website included Celtic symbols that the article said were used by white supremacist groups as well as the slogan “strength through honour” and a post "our pride is our honour and loyalty" that was seen by some as similar to a Nazi slogan "my honour is called loyalty" the article claimed.

The website also included pictures depicting the unification of Germany and the colonisation of New Zealand.

In later interviews and statements the group said it was not racist, Nazi or white supremacist and was open to anyone interested in European culture.

The Auckland University Students Association (AUSA) was quoted saying it was disappointing a potentially offensive group would be allowed at orientation events and it had received complaints about the group and these had been passed on to the university.

The club would be able to take part on the orientation expo. It had not done anything overtly offensive but nor had it done anything to reassure students.

Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy was reported saying she would keep an eye on the group.

The group eventually closed down after its leaders reported receiving threats.

The Complaint

Mr de Boer alleges breaches of Press Council Principle 1 on accuracy, fairness and balance.

The original article had been amended after his complaint to include balance but the newspaper had refused to apologise.

He said the article was inaccurate, because the university said it had found no evidence of discrimination or racism. He questioned how "paintings which hang by their thousands in NZ classrooms" we're symbols of white supremacy. He said the slogan and the Nazi slogan had only two words in common and that was a low bar for evidence.

Claiming someone could be a white supremacist based on the use of a Celtic symbol was unfair and the article did not attempt to relate the symbol and white supremacy.

Mr de Boer said the newspaper had admitted the lack of balance in its response. He alleged it had not sought comment ESA, and only approached it after the article was first published.

He said the Herald had destroyed the lives of a group of students and questioned whether its intention was to cause the group to fold.

He also asked if the Council could rule the Herald should remove all articles relating to the ESA from its website.

The Response

Chief of Staff Elizabeth Binning on behalf of the Herald conceded in her first response to Mr de Boer that there should have been balance in the story, or at least a line stating comment was being sought.

She said there had been numerous versions of the story published on the day including one angled on the comments of the ESA president, and they had been added to the original story along with comments by NZ First leader Winston Peters questioning the role of the media in the group's decision to disband.

She said she had quickly addressed his concerns over balance.

The radio reporter from the same publisher (NZME), who uncovered the story, had tried very hard to contact the group prior to the story running on radio and on the website.

Concerns about the group held by the AUSA were outlined in the article. Other viewpoints were also covered including those of the university and Ms Devoy. A line from the group's Facebook page was cited.

The ESA had made contact later in the morning after publication and a new article was written based on those views.

She had added subsequent comments from the group to the original article and had linked to it, and other related articles, audio of an interview with the ESA representative (who requested anonymity).

The university had since issued a statement indicating the ESA's use of language and slogans was inappropriate.

The Decision

Ms Binning did initially concede there should have been balancing comment in the story, or a line stating comment was sought.

While it is good practice to include such an explanation where appropriate, because it reassures readers attempts have been made to achieve balance, the absence of those words does not in itself constitute a breach of the requirement for balance.

Ms Binning in her response said strenuous efforts were made before publication to seek comment, and the Council accepts that. There is no evidence from Mr de Boer to challenge this.

Evidence was presented showing that once comment was obtained from the ESA it was included in the original article and other articles on the issue.

Mr de Boer described this as rewriting history by editing the original article as if there was a semblance of balance. But to the Council it appears to be good practice and it is common to add further information and comments to existing articles online.

If the original complaint was about a lack of balance, then it is hard to see why the addition of further balancing comment should be objected to.

The Council does not find the article breached the principle of balance.

The AUSA statement cited by Ms Binning above did not specifically say the references were inappropriate - and Mr de Boer takes issue with that characterisation. But it indicated as much and went on to refer to the ESA responding to concerns by moving to change its slogan and expressing regret at its choice of words. (However an active Facebook page in the EAS's name still uses the slogan "strength through honour".)

The article correctly notes the slogan is "similar" to the SS one and reports the fears of some that the ESA is racist or a white nationalist group.

The pictures of German unification and New Zealand colonisation mentioned in the story fairly illustrate the concerns of "highly nationalistic” objectives raised by AUSA president Will Matthews.

(It is noted that Mr Matthews is quoted as saying "white pride" objectives not white supremacist ones.)

More problematic is the article's unequivocal and unsourced claim that the group used "Celtic symbols used by white supremacist groups". That seems true of the Celtic cross but not obviously true of the circle-style symbol ESA used. However viewed in context the Council determined that this was not worthy of an uphold.

It remains an open question whether the ESA was intending to be provocative - “dog whistling” to use a pejorative term - by combining the symbols, pictures and slogans it chose. But that would not be unusual on campus or during orientation.

Equally there is no doubt the concerns expressed to and by the AUSA were genuine, and it was right that the newspaper report those and did so fairly along with the ESA’s rebuttal.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

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