C E CONSEDINE AGAINST N Z CATHOLIC

Case Number: 1071

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NZ Catholic

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by C. E. Consedine against NZ Catholic about treatment of his correspondence with the newspaper concerning the commitment to the Catholic faith of Jim Anderton MP for Wigram and leader of the Progressive Party.

Background
Mr C.E. Consedine of Barrington, Christchurch wrote to the ‘Manager’, NZ Catholic, about a report published on 18 June under the headline ‘Christian Left to Meet’. He was, as he put it, “infuriated” that the newspaper continued to portray Jim Anderton MP as a Catholic. Mr Anderton, he asserted, had publicly acknowledged that he had for many years not been active in his faith. He “lived in our parish for many years, and never, in that time, practised his faith at his local church”. He also contended that the MP had supported “every element of moral legislation contrary to basic Christian teaching, including prostitution, abortion and same sex legislation.” The letter was referred to Mr Anderton for comment. His robust response was then published alongside Mr Consedine’s letter in the newspaper’s Letters section in the issue of 16-29 July 2006.

The Complaint
Mr Consedine wrote again to the ‘Manager’ on 17 July asking: on what basis the newspaper had called Mr Anderton a Catholic and how it was that his own privacy had been breached through publication of what he had deemed a private letter of enquiry. He had “no beef” with Mr Anderton. Rather he wanted an answer from the newspaper. The issues were not such as concerned the wider readership but the newspaper itself. Therefore there had been no cause for publication of his letter. The newspaper had not only not answered a “personal” letter to the Manager seeking an explanation on a specific point, but taken it to a third party for comment and then published it. This had constituted a gross breach of his privacy.

The editor of NZ Catholic, Gavin Abraham, responded on 25 July citing the public record of Mr Anderton’s engagement with the church and making the point that letters to newspapers are “generally deemed” to be ‘Letters to the Editor’ unless specifically marked otherwise. He noted that the Press Council had determined that unless letters are marked ‘Not for Publication’ they can be published as a ‘Letter to the Editor’. The newspaper received many letters asking similar questions to those posed by Mr Consedine. Since Mr Anderton’s credentials as a Catholic were apparently being called into question the letter had been referred to the MP for a response, which had then been published along with Mr Consedine’s letter.
In a follow-up letter of 31 July, also addressed to the ‘Manager’, Mr Consedine stated that his “anger” at the actions of the newspaper was unappeased. He raised matters to do with the role of the newspaper in relation to the church which are of no concern to the Press Council. Again he made his point that that he was seeking answers from the newspaper as to why Mr Anderton had been deemed a Catholic and why his letter had been referred to the MP for comment. Receiving no reply he asked again for a response on 24 August.

This letter crossed with a reply from the editor on 23 August giving grounds for calling Mr Anderton a Catholic and citing another political parallel. The approach to Mr Anderton for comment could not in his opinion be considered a breach of privacy or mischievous. Normal procedures had been followed.

Mr Consedine took the matter up with the Press Council on 31 August. He was very unhappy that the newspaper “took it as their right” to refer his letter to Mr Anderton for comment and that the editor had assumed his letter was for publication in the first place, when he had simply intended it as an enquiry – addressed not to the editor, but to the Manager. “The process followed and subsequent publication only resulted in humiliation and embarrassment for me.”

Conclusions
The differences between Mr Consedine and NZ Catholic seem unfortunately to have been marked by misunderstanding - on both sides. The complainant addressed his letter to the ‘Manager’ of the newspaper on the assumption that that in this way he would elicit a statement of policy. In the absence of any specific request along those lines or any indication that the letter was not for publication, it was, quite understandably, treated as a letter to the editor. On that basis and given that it raised issues concerning a public figure, it was entirely appropriate for the editor to give Mr Anderton a right of reply. In the event the MP was able to put the record straight on an important issue - he voted against legalisation of prostitution contrary to Mr Consedine’s allegation

The Letters section in any newspaper constitutes an invaluable public forum. Correspondents must assume that their letters will be seen as a contribution to debate – unless clearly marked as ‘Not for Publication’. It is the editor’s prerogative to establish the rules for management of correspondence, to select or edit accordingly and to use the space to promote free debate in line with his or her journalistic experience. There is an accompanying responsibility to ensure balance and fairness. This exercise in freedom of speech will however often be bruising – as was clearly the case in this instance.

Questions relating to the profession of the Catholic faith in no way concern the Press Council. The Council’s interest lies in the free expression of ideas and beliefs which it finds was, in the event, served - despite some confusion about ends and means.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.