BILL BENFIELD AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 2034

Council Meeting: JUNE 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Bias
Columnists
Accuracy
Misleading

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint from Bill Benfield against the NZ Listener arising from a column published on December 22, 2007.
Background
Under the heading “Poison Pens” and with the standfirst “1080 has had an unfairly bad press” the Listener on December 22, 2007, published an Ecologic column by Dave Hansford. This suggested that the use of 1080 had been stigmatised by campaigners, “more often than not, recreational hunters.” It quoted arguments used by the Department of Conservation in favour of its use and suggested that opponents of its use exaggerated the risks. Hansford pointed out that a recent Environmental Risk Management Authority review had cleared 1080 for further use.

The Complaint
In a letter to the Press Council of February 20, later copied to the Listener, Bill Benfield complained the article was false and misleading in that it sought to minimise the hazardous nature of 1080. The article also sought to demonise outdoor recreational groups, especially hunters. Mr Benfield listed some 15 individual points in the article that he disputed and in totality rejected what he described as the gist of the whole article; "that 1080 is a comparatively safe answer to New Zealand's pest management problems." Mr Benfield acknowledged that the writer and the magazine were "entitled to promote what they like" but the Listener had "a duty to perform with some integrity." Mr Benfield also provided the Council with several submissions from various sources, addressing the risk involved with the use of 1080.
On March 13 Mr Benfield wrote to the Listener saying he had no response from them but suggested that the magazine consider publishing the full text of his complaint to the Press Council.
The Response
On March 18 the magazine replied to Mr Benfield. It took up some, but not all of his points of detail, and differed with his conclusions but its main defence was that the column was an opinion piece, and like most such articles, aimed at provoking debate. It offered to consider publishing a letter from Mr Benfield, following the same protocols as for other letters.

Further comment
Mr Benfield rejected the Listener's response and proposed remedy. In a letter of March 30 he disagreed with the suggestion that the article was an opinion piece designed to provoke debate. It had "the air of truth and right", not of opinion. In its letter the magazine had offered no evidence to refute his detailed claims, other than referring to the DOC which he suggested "may not be telling the real story."
In a letter to the Press Council of April 18 the Listener stood by its earlier response and repeated the invitation to Mr Benfield to write a letter for publication.
Discussion
The use of 1080 in New Zealand is controversial and has attracted fervent opponents and defenders. It is to be expected that the press will reflect that debate. Dave Hansford's piece is clearly polemical and manifestly takes a position. Few readers will interpret it as an even-handed and objective treatment of the issues. Mr Benfield takes a different view of 1080 and his detailed submissions make out his case. But it is not the Press Council's role to adjudicate on the use of the pesticide.
Even if the Council was totally convinced by Mr Benfield's arguments it cannot be the Council's duty to prevent the publication of dissenting opinion, even if it were to come from a discredited minority. There are, for example, few believers in a flat earth but publications would be entitled to run material in defence of that proposition, providing it was clearly identifiable as opinion.
The Decision
The complaint is not upheld. The Listener is entitled to publish columns expressing strong opinions on public issues. This is such a column. The repeated offer to consider publishing a letter from Mr Benfield critical of the column is an appropriate and responsible response to his complaint.

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

Aroha Beck took no part in the consideration of this complaint.