BILL BENFIELD AGAINST NEW ZEALAND GEOGRAPHIC

Case Number: 2079

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NZ Geographic

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Misleading

Introduction
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Bill Benfield against the New Zealand Geographic concerning an article “A Plague Upon Our House” written by Dave Hansford and published in the New Zealand Geographic in May, 2009.

The Article
The article reported claims and counter-claims about the effectiveness of, or harm caused by, the poison 1080, aerially dropped in forests around New Zealand. It mentioned ‘hundreds’ of peer-reviewed papers examining this poison. The gist of the article was that while various opponents of 1080 poisoning were making a variety of claims against 1080, in fact the poison was assisting organisations such as the Department of Conservation to manage pests better and was benefiting various native species, by killing possums, rats, stoats and ferrets.

The Complaint
The complaint is that the article in question failed the Council’s Principle 1, in that it was (a) inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced and further that it (b) misled and misinformed readers by both commission and omission. The main grounds for the complaint were that Mr Hansford had either not used sound scientific studies to substantiate the article, or had not referenced the “six [that] could be described as using science.” Emailed correspondence between Mr Benfield, Mr Frankham (Editor of New Zealand Geographic) and Mr Fricker (Managing Editor) was also submitted, covering issues raised prior to the complaint’s being lodged with the Council.

The Response
Mr Fricker stated that the editor had sent Mr Benfield a draft prepared by Mr Hansford which did contain references (albeit some with missing data; one ‘in press’ and one with an incorrect website reference). However Mr Benfield had claimed that some of this information had been misused, cited incorrectly or used to draw conclusions that were not valid from the studies. Mr Fricker responded that “we are confident the article is robustly researched, balanced and will stand on its own merits.” He went on to rebut points raised by Mr Benfield, although acknowledging that two articles that lacked adequate citation details were the omission of the New Zealand Geographic. Mr Fricker strenuously denied claims by Mr Benfield that material was misused, cited incorrectly or drew conclusions that were not valid. He accused Mr Benfield of ‘cherry-picking’ himself, to substantiate his own point of view.

Discussion
The crux of the matter appeared to revolve around whether the article that appeared in the New Zealand Geographic was based on sound science, and whether its author, Mr Hansford, had fairly and accurately represented (a) what those articles contained and (b) the state of scientific research on 1080 poisoning in general. Mr Benfield believed that the magazine had failed on both counts. The magazine’s managing editor, by contrast, claimed that Mr Benfield’s position was “pervasive among anti-1080 lobbyists” and that “They cannot publish baseless, interest-driven and alarmist junk science without reference or check, then criticise the rigour, independence and integrity of scientists and journalists.”

Mr Benfield, for his part, suggested in his complaint that Mr Hansford’s article could be considered “a propaganda piece” for ideologies of “indigenous purity, a new Gondwanaland.”

As far as the accuracy of claim and counter-claim about the use or misuse of scientific articles cited in the New Zealand Geographic is concerned, this Council cannot adjudicate on the competing claims.

As for balance, the Press Council noted that there were many opinions and voices contained in the article, including those of anti-1080 campaigners. The article noted that even those who are in favour of 1080 recognise its use is not without problems. The collateral poisoning of native birds, stock and family dogs are all mentioned.

Wellington medical officer of health Stephen Palmer is cited as having had to “push pest-control authorities ‘very hard to improve the way they operated. Some of them were real cowboys.’ ” Palmer subsequently claimed that 1080 was being handled much better recently. The article also described innovative alternatives to 1080 which are not, unfortunately, freely available at present.

Conclusion:
The issue of lack of balance raised by Mr Benfield was not upheld, as there was evidence of critical comment on 1080 provided in the article. The author was not required, in an article of this type, to ensure that exact balance of contrary viewpoints was maintained.
Neither side agreed on each other’s interpretation of whether articles had been accurately used. Both parties held to positions that were unlikely to change, and the Press Council is unable to adjudicate on the accuracy claims.
Readers wanting to investigate the veracity of the claims and counter-claims about 1080 would be wise to read widely on the issue, rather than to rely on the content of one article.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.