ERWIN ALBER AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2229

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Advocacy
Balance, Lack Of
Distortion
Editorial Freedom
Accuracy
Misleading
Conflict of Interest

Erwin Alber, representing the New Zealand Health Information Network, takes issue with a New Zealand Herald editorial on fluoridation of town water supplies. The editorial endorsed the Labour Party's pre-election support for an independent inquiry into fluoridation with a view to developing a national policy. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
On November 11, 2011 the New Zealand Herald published its editorial, recording the "undeniable" advantages of fluoridation. It also referred to the "scaremongering, anti-fluoridation brigade". Endorsing the Labour's call for an independent inquiry, it said such an investigation "would not have to waste time debating the pluses and minuses of fluoridation. The advantages are undeniable."
It said the focus of any inquiry should be the authority best suited to make decisions on the fluoridation of water supplies. It said the issue had been highlighted by the New Plymouth District Council's decision to remove the "mineral" from its water. It criticised the New Plymouth councillors who, it said, did not familiarise themselves with the scientific literature on the subject.
It also faulted other council decision making on the subject, saying councillors had "shirked their responsibility" by putting the issue to a referendum.
The editorial said the decision on fluoridation should be vested in District Health Boards, not councils, enabling decisions based on scientific research and "not the emotional and irrational views of a small minority".
It also gave some space to views of Health Minister Tony Ryall, who said fluoridation was a local choice and the Government had no plans to make it compulsory.

The Complaint
Mr Alber considered the editorial breached the New Zealand Journalist Code of Ethics, in particular that journalists should strive to disclose all essential facts and not to suppress relevant, available facts or distort by wrong or improper emphasis.
Mr Alber said, while an opinion piece, the editorial did readers a disservice by omitting easily obtainable facts which would have provided a balanced view.
He was also upset that the editorial made derogatory reference to people concerned about the health risks of fluoridation.
The editorial had also mistakenly asserted that fluoride was a mineral, whereas the hydrosilicic acid added to New Zealand drinking water was a "highly toxic" chemical.
His initial complaint to the newspaper on November 16 cited the Code of Ethics. While noting the editorial was an opinion piece, he said it should not promote information which could be easily disproved. The editor was, wittingly or unwittingly, acting as the mouthpiece for political and commercial interests seeking nationwide fluoridation.
He called the editorial a "gross distortion of the facts", said it failed to present information from both sides of the debate, and denigrated those who had studied scientific literature and who had concluded that fluoridation did more harm than good.
He cited numerous examples of scientific research to back his argument.
He also asked the New Zealand Herald to publish a page in which the views of fluoridation advocates and opponents could present their arguments.

The Newspaper’s Response
Deputy editor David Hastings said the piece was written as part of the general debate on the election campaign. It was the newspaper's absolute right to express its opinion on this and any other subject.
From previous correspondence with Mr Alber, he noted his opposition to fluoridation and the meningococcal vaccine. He said Mr Alber did not accept the views of the World Health Organisation (WHO), American Dental Association or New Zealand's Ministry of Health.
Mr Alber had a right to his opinion, and the correct way to challenge something in an editorial was by way of a letter to the editor.

Further Comment from the Complainant
In correspondence with the Press Council, Mr Alber said he had lodged his complaint because Mr Hastings' letter was completely dismissive of his concerns.
He noted Mr Hastings' view that an editorial was an expression of opinion, and that the newspaper was entitled to express it. However, Mr Alber said the editorial had engaged in slanderous remarks, had denigrated people concerned about the health hazards of fluoridation, had used information selectively to promote commercial interests and had deliberately ignored readily available information about the ineffectiveness and harm of fluoridation.
Mr Alber attached considerable material to back his assertions and also made some strong allegations about the official organisations on which the New Zealand Herald editorial relied.
He said that "voicing a strong opinion in my opinion does not absolve editors from adhering to the Journalist Code of Ethics".

Discussion and Decision
The Press Council had previously endorsed the right of editors to express strong opinions and to express them vigorously, even if some readers are offended and provoked by what they see as ignorant, wrong-headed or blatantly prejudiced remarks.
The fluoridation debate is one in which strong opinions and views are held by both sides, each of which can produce strong scientific evidence to back their case. It is not the role of the Press Council to rule on which has the most credence.
The New Zealand Herald relies on official views, such as the WHO and New Zealand's Ministry of Health, and its editorial was published during the election campaign in a commentary on Labour Party policy. It also cited the Government's stance.
Mr Alber has strong contrary views and makes serious allegations about the WHO and New Zealand's Ministry of Health, which evidences his extreme position.
He also says the editor could be seen to be acting as the mouthpiece for political and commercial interests seeking nationwide fluoridation.
The Press Council does not accept that this is so. The editorial was supporting Labour's call for an independent inquiry into fluoridation with a view to developing a national policy. One result, it suggested, could be that District Health Boards would be responsible for decision-making on fluroridation. The editorial did make it clear there were those who opposed fluoridation.
The New Zealand Herald editorial was a clearly defined expression of opinion. It was entitled to express that view. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.