EWAN MORRIS AGAINST NORTHERN ADVOCATE

Case Number: 2591

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Northern Advocate

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

Overview

1. Ewan Morris complained that a story published by Northern Advocate on May 13, 2017 titled “Pre Maori Northlanders?” breached the Press Council’s Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).

2. The Advocate story (published in abridged form on the NZ Herald site on or about May 17) summarised the views of a “Northland historian” Noel Hilliam in connection with the origins of certain early New Zealand inhabitants. Basically Mr Hilliam claims ships from Europe and China visited New Zealand long before Maori arrived from Polynesia. Mr Hilliam claimed to have recovered skulls of “pre Maori Northlanders”. The skulls had been examined by a “forensic expert” from Edinburgh University with the expert concluding that the skulls depict people with Celtic and Mediterranean characteristics. Mr Hilliam also said work carried out by a London pathologist in 1997 did not consider the skulls to be of Polynesian origin. The story included two images, purportedly face reconstructions worked up from the skulls Mr Hilliam said he had in his possession.

3. The story mentioned Mr Hilliam’s argument that insufficient attention had been given to New Zealand’s history. If the issue was left to government and official historians “we’d be left in the dark forever”. The story noted Mr Hilliam’s refusal to name the Edinburgh forensic expert or the pathologist because of the “expected controversy over their findings”.

4. Mr Morris complained to the newspaper within days of the May 13 story. His concerns were two fold. First, Mr Morris said the newspaper failed to “cross check” Mr Hilliam’s claims as to the findings of the so called forensic expert and the pathologist. Mr Morris said enquires with Edinburgh University showed that no one from that institution had ever assisted Mr Hilliam or analysed the skulls in question. Further it was impossible to track down the pathologist Mr Hilliam had mentioned. Mr Morris claimed the “expert” evidence was worthless”. Secondly, Mr Morris said it was impossible to determine skin and hair colour from a skull as Mr Hilliam claimed. The paper had “clearly failed to check these claims with a forensic anthropologist or other relevant professional”.

5. Mr Morris went further. He referred to Messrs. Hilliam, Doutre and Bolton (the latter being mentioned in the stories as authors of works supporting Mr Hilliam’s theses) as being people having a long association with far right and anti-Maori views. Mr Morris raised the possible legal and ethical implications of Mr Hilliam’s alleged removal of human remains fromburial sites. At its most basic Mr Morris claimed that the May 13 story lacked balance. There was nothing in the story suggesting the Hilliam claims were in any way controversial or that most “relevant professionals” (historians and archaeologists) believed the claims to be wrong.

6. As a result of these complaints the newspaper followed up with a story titled “Amateur Northland historian asked to explain source of skulls” published on June 1, 2017.The article reported a NZ Heritage archaeologist as enquiring of Mr Hilliam as to the origins of the skulls. It went on to say that Edinburgh University was unaware of the face reconstructions published by theAdvocate or the skulls. A NZ heritage historian was quoted as saying “Maori were the first humans to colonise New Zealand…[and] there is no evidence of people arriving before the Maori…”.

7. The second story reported that the editor had apologised for publishing the 13 May story before it received word from the Scottish University about Hilliam’s claims. The editor also acknowledged some counter claims to Hilliam’s theories should have been included to provide balance and that the paper was now “acutely aware” that the sensitive nature of history meant balanced reporting was important.

The Complaint

8. Mr Morris complained to the Press Council before the May 31 article was published. The complaint to the Council expanded on the matters first put to the newspaper. Mr Morris is particularly concerned as to the paper’s failure to make any enquiry of “genuine experts” to test the Hilliam claims. Mr Morris has supplied the Council with material he says supports the allegation the Hilliam views are held by those with far right sympathies.

9. Mr Morris says the newspaper’s follow up story, which included the editor’s apology, does not excuse the Principle 1 breaches arising from the original article. Mr Morris says the paper “has not acknowledged its responsibility to check and evaluate claims of fact before publishing such claims”.

The Response

10. The Advocate acknowledges the first story beached Principle 1. The newspaper had twice sought comment from the Scottish university but none had been received at the time of publication. It was wrong to publish the story without any counter claims, but the story did emphasise that it contained Mr Hilliam’s opinion or theory.1

11. It says however that it moved to rectify the breach by publishing the follow up piece. A separate apology was issued to the Maori television programme “The Hui”. The newspaper has advised the Council that “the original story has provided an opportunity for the Northern Advocate to reflect on its news gathering processes… The paper regards this experience as a strong lesson and reminder regarding its responsibility to adhere to the principles of journalism that [it is] accountable for”.

The Decision

12. The Press Council found the story published in the Northern Advocate on May 13 breached basic journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.

13. This story touched on sensitive historic and cultural issues, yet it reported, without checking, Mr Hilliam’s claims that the skulls he had found showed Chinese or European seafarers came to New Zealand centuries before Polynesians.

14. The paper failed to check with the unnamed experts Mr Hilliam cited or any other credible historic or forensic experts to test whether his claims could be valid. The story should not have been published without rudimentary checks.

15. These deficiencies were compounded by the editor’s subsequent actions. He was slow to acknowledge problems with this story. His first response to the complaint was to acknowledged just one oversight. This was its failure to report it had not yet heard back from Edinburgh University before publication. Other compelling points raised by Mr Morris were not addressed and he was instead invited to submit a letter to the editor.

16. It took some days before the paper publicly acknowledged any failings in its reportage. This was in a letter to theThe Hui on May 26 where the editor said he regretted the way the story had been seen by some people and noted “we have learned many lessons from this story, which has also embarrassed our matua within theNZ Herald.”

17. It took another five days before any of this was conveyed directly to the paper’s readers. This was at the bottom of a follow up story where it was reported the editor had apologised for publishing the May 13 story before it received word from Edinburgh University about Mr Hilliam’s claims. The editor was also reported to have said some counter claims to Mr Hilliam’s theory should also have been included in the story and that …”the paper was now acutely aware that the sensitive nature of history meant balanced reporting was important”.

18. This was nearly three weeks after the first story was published on the front page. It was far from prompt and was given none of the prominence of the original story.

19. While the editor has acknowledged in his correspondence with the Press Council that the paper breached Principle 1, he has still not admitted this toAdvocate readers.

20. Pursuant to Principle 12 the Press Council regularly gives credit to publications which promptly acknowledge errors and gives them fair prominence. TheAdvocate has failed to do so.

21. The paper should have promptly and prominently published a frank apology to its readers for failing in its duty to provide fair, accurate and balanced reporting. The majority of the Council consider the time taken by the publication was too long to allow it to avail itself of Principle 12.

The complaint is upheld.

Chris Darlow dissented from this decision considering the time taken was reasonable in terms of Principle 12 given the fact checking the publication had to undertake.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan stood down to maintain public member majority.