C G DUFF AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2112

Council Meeting: MAY 2010

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

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

CG Duff complained about the publication of his first name (Cecil) as the signatory to a letter to the editor which he had submitted as CG Duff. The complaint is upheld.

The Complaint
On December 8, 2009 CG Duff submitted a letter to the editor of The Dominion Post. The letter was published but the signature was changed from “CG Duff” to “Cecil Duff”.

Mr Duff believes his privacy has been intruded upon by the use of his first name. In his first communication with The Dominion Post editor he argued that the newspaper had no right to broadcast his private name against his wishes.

In further email correspondence Mr Duff said after deep and lengthy consideration he felt the practice of using first names was preposterous, an invasion of privacy and Big Brother in action.

Mr Duff argues that in 40 years of corresponding with the Wellington newspapers he has hardly ever used his Christian name as he had been assiduous in cultivating his image as “CG” Duff.

Responses and further comment
Responding for The Dominion Post, the letters’ editor said the newspaper’s practice was to use first names wherever possible so that letter-writers could be aware of whether they were responding to a man or a woman and cast their response accordingly.
Mr Duff did not accept this, noting some names can be either male or female. He requested that correspondents be allowed to use initials despite the English language lacking a neutral pronoun.
The assistant editor repeated the newspaper’s position that in every possible instance full names of letter writers were used, and they were identified by their suburb. He explained a two-fold reasoning for this: firstly to avoid potential confusion over the identity of letter writers and secondly to assist the newspaper in ascertaining the veracity of the letters.
Discussion
The Press Council rarely accepts complaints regarding letters to the editor as newspapers are free to chose or reject letters submitted for publication. The issue here is about the manner in which the newspaper identified a letter writer.

Mr Duff says he has assiduously cultivated his image over 40 years as “CG” Duff and infers that he has been the author of previous letters signed in this manner. He submits no examples to illustrate inconsistency towards him in The Dominion Post’s policy.

The Dominion Post has advanced three separate arguments for using “Cecil” instead of “CG” Duff; firstly so readers would know the gender of the letter-writer and craft their response accordingly, secondly so that people of the same name in the same suburb could not be mistakenly identified as the letter writer and finally to be able to identify people signing fictitious names to letters for publication.

Decision
Newspapers have domain over their letters page. However, it is useful for the rules of engagement to be clearly stated and fairly applied. Current rules require a full name, address and phone number but do not state that full names will be published. In two recent columns, including the day this complaint was considered, the Council noted letter writers identified by initials.

The argument that letter writers must be identifiable by their gender does not find traction with the Council. The argument that use of a first name identifies accurately a letter writer and avoids confusion has some substance. However, after 40 years of using the identifying signature of “CG” the use of “Cecil” is confusing. Many people are known only by their initials (JRR Tolkein, JK Rowling, BB King, CS Lewis).

In this instance, The Dominion Post appears to have treated Mr Duff unfairly by imposing a rule which is neither publicized nor implemented consistently. The arguments advanced by the newspaper do not amount to a compelling case.
The complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.