COMPLAINANT AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 1078

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint about two newspaper opinion pieces published by the Sunday Star-Times referring to a decision by Wadestown Primary School, in Wellington, to ban nut products in the school.

Background
The two opinion pieces were written by columnist Michael Laws and published on 9 July 2006 and 16 July 2006. The first concentrated mainly on the Wadestown School ban; the second revisited the subject in response to readers’ reactions.

Complaint
The complaint is on the grounds that the two articles contain factual errors and that the article of 9 July is not fair and balanced. The complainants, who have a connection with Wadestown Primary School, also complain that the opportunity offered to them by the newspaper to submit a signed letter to the editor in response to the original article would have breached their privacy. The complainants, in addition, say the tone of the columns is offensive.

The complainants’ view is that the articles do not accurately reflect the reasons why Wadestown School decided to put a ban in place. The reasons, given in the 9 July article, were firstly “because someone, somewhere, sometime might just have a nut allergy” and, secondly, because a 14-year-old boy in Australia had died after being challenged to eat a nut by his friends. Instead, the complainants say the ban was introduced to protect a child, who had recently experienced a serious allergic reaction, and other children at the school with allergies. A subsequent letter to the complainants from the school board of trustees chairman supports this.

As well, the complainants say the columnist misrepresents the views of the Allergy New Zealand both about its attitude to the ban and about whether there have been deaths in New Zealand as a result of anaphylactic shock from a peanut allergy.

They say incorrect statements of fact in the 9 July column render the whole article misleading. They accept that the views expressed are the opinions of the columnist, but they say the opinions are based on “false” statements. They wrote to the newspaper asking it to print a correction of the facts and an apology.

The newspaper suggested they submit a letter to the editor, which they declined to do because the newspaper required the letter to be signed. On publication of the second article a week later, the complainants referred the matter to the Press Council.


The newspaper’s response
The Sunday Star-Times’ deputy editor has responded by saying that the articles appeared in the newspaper’s Focus section, which contains opinion pieces, and covered Michael Laws’ views on “political correctness” among other things. Mr Laws is a well-known politician and commentator. “Readers will be well aware of his forthright style. That is what they have come to expect from him.”

On the issues of accuracy, the newspaper stands by the articles. The deputy editor says Mr Laws was using hyperbole and satire when he wrote about the reasons for the Wadestown School ban “and readers would have appreciated that this was not to be taken literally”. “Furthermore, the school’s reason for the ban was clarified in the second column.” [16 July]

The newspaper also stands by its reporting of comments by Allergy New Zealand, saying it was Mr Laws’ clear recollection that the group did not support a ban, but favoured education about allergies. It was also his clear recollection that when asked if there had been any deaths recorded in New Zealand that were attributable to anaphylactic shock, the answer had been no.

The newspaper says that, as opinion pieces, it is entirely appropriate that they reflect Mr Laws’ own views. He expresses these views in a forthright way. There was no attempt to mislead readers or to offend or breach the privacy of the complainants. Those who wanted to express different views were given the opportunity to do so.

Conclusion
The Press Council is not in a position to determine the accuracy of the statements contained in the articles and whose recollection of what was said is the correct one. It is accepted, however, that Mr Laws was using hyperbole to comment on the Wadestown School’s decision to impose a ban on nut products.

It is a columnist’s right to express an opinion in print, however provocative, and it is part of the essential function of newspapers to provide social and political commentary and a forum to debate issues. These articles were clearly labelled as opinion pieces.

Sometimes opinions strongly expressed will offend people and it is also appropriate that newspapers give space to people to respond to these views. In this case, the Sunday Star-Times published a letter from Allergy New Zealand that clarified its views on the desirability of banning products to protect allergy sufferers. It also offered the complainants the opportunity to submit a letter to the editor, which they declined on the basis that a signed letter would identify them. The parties did not explore any compromise solutions.

It is not accepted that the articles breached the privacy of the complainants. The columns would not have identified them to anyone who did not already know them.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

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