Case Number: 1042

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Right of Reply

Christian Heritage New Zealand, through its secretary, David Simpkin, complained to the New Zealand Press Council on October 14, 2005, of four articles that appeared in the New Zealand Herald between September 1 and 15, 2005, the height of the election campaign when newspapers can expect to come under criticism for failing to provide the right balance as politicians punch and counter-punch.

The complaint is not upheld but it provides an example of the sensitivities of small political parties at election time and raises the old question of when a newspaper, in the middle of a flurry of political, often extravagant rhetoric, should realise an obligation to seek another view.

The first article complained of was a September 1 column by Garth George headed Independent Idealists in Parliament . . . if Only. Mr George made it clear, although he was by no means unkind to the Christian philosophy, that he was holding to his long-held view that he had no time for Christian political parties, and mentioned Christian Heritage and the Destiny parties as examples. The reference was a small part of the column.

The second article was a New Zealand Herald editorial of September 9 headed Clumsiness Not Exclusive to Brethren. The editorial was mostly a criticism of Exclusive Brethren church members who had been exposed as behind pamphlets attacking the Greens and Labour. The editorial noted at one point – well through the editorial - how parties allied closely to religion had won little electoral support in New Zealand. It mentioned its own poll showing Destiny and Christian Heritage had little backing, which suggested this was not about to change.

The third was published on September 12. It was an opinion piece by John Hinchcliff, an Auckland city councillor and chaplain at Auckland University, which did not mention Christian Heritage by name. Professing himself to be Christian, John Hinchcliff wrote critically mainly about the linking of fundamentalism, mainly Christian, and political ideologies.

The fourth was another Garth George column of September 15 headed Why This Voter is Returning to his Roots, that is, National. He did not mention Christian Heritage by name but well through his column mentioned that he believed the two Christian parties “will register barely a blip on the count of votes, and I pray that they will both dissolve themselves and that their members will go back to their churches and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, by which they might do some good.” This mention was far from the dominant theme of the column.

The fortnight before the election on September 17 was, of course, a critical time for both newspapers and political parties. The Herald was publishing an enormous amount of information for voters.

Much of the complaint refers to the first opinion piece by Garth George. Mr Simpkin says CHNZ leader Ewen McQueen sent a letter of rebuttal of Mr George’s views to the Herald for publication. It was not published. Mr Simpkin wrote to the council: “When contacted about this we were told it was not the Herald’s policy to have letters to the editor published by politicians during the election campaign.”

This policy is perhaps understandable. During a political campaign, there might be little space left for other letter writers if politicians were allowed a free rein and newspapers would run into interminable criticism if they were to select one politician over another.

Instead, the letters editor, according to Mr Simpkin, suggested an opinion piece, which was duly written. That too was not published. When contacted, the opinion page editor, according to Mr Simpkin, said the article would not be published, and suggested a letter which, of course, had already been refused.

Both the article and letter referred only to the initial Garth George column.

In his submission to the Council, Mr Simpkin says, among other things, Christian Heritage is not claiming the Herald was obligated to give the party more election coverage but, having raised criticisms of the party on four occasions, it was bound to offer a right of reply before the September 17 election. The Herald had therefore breached the council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance and had deliberately misled and misinformed readers in refusing the party a right of reply.

As for letters to the editor, Mr Simpkin noted the council’s principle 12: “Selection and treatment of letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest in the correspondents’ views.”

In his view, the Herald had breached principle 12 by declining to publish the letter and/or opinion piece and by publishing the four articles, it had deliberately misled or misinformed readers by suggesting there was no “other side” to the assertion that the public should not vote for Christian political parties.

In response, the Herald’s Deputy Editor, David Hastings, denied that each of the articles was aimed at Christian Heritage with the intention of discouraging people to vote for the party and its candidates.

He pointed out the party had been mentioned in passing in three of the four opinion pieces, each time predicting it was unlikely to achieve much electoral success. The party’s letter and article had been considered for publication but, as the party had been informed, chances of selection were slim.

The Herald, Mr Hastings said, rarely published direct responses to opinion pieces and, “for obvious reasons, are particularly disinclined to do so from representatives of political parties during an election campaign.”

The four articles of which the Christian Heritage complains were a small part of the Herald’s overall coverage, which was considerable. All four were matters of opinion. Clearly, they caused some disquiet with the Christian Heritage party.

On balance, however, the Press Council does not believe the Herald breached its obligations over accuracy, fairness and balance or that, in refusing to give the party a right of reply over three small references to the party in four opinion pieces, it had deliberately misled or misinformed readers. It was also within the boundaries of its responsibilities to decline both the offered letter and opinion piece.

Had there been a direct attack on the party, its policies or particularly politicians standing for the party, it may have been a different matter. In this case, however, the references were passing and, giving the political climate at the time following the newspaper’s poll and the relevance of the Exclusive Brethren story, the mention of Christian Heritage in opinion pieces is neither surprising nor remarkable.

The lapse in communication between the letters editor and the opinion page editor, while perhaps understandable, is to be regretted because it no doubt added to Mr Simpkin’s frustrations.

The Council is not sure if the Herald had informed political parties of its policy on politicians’ letters and submitted articles at the height of an election campaign, but it would be helpful if all newspaper editors, at the start of election campaigns, made their letter-writing and op-ed rules for both correspondents and political aspirants crystal clear.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Murray Williams. John Gardner, of the New Zealand Herald, did not take part in the consideration of this complaint.