Case Number: 863

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Rural News

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Offensive Language

Fish & Game New Zealand (a Crown Entity) and Mr Bryce Johnson complained to the Press Council against a critical article published in Rural News about Bryce Johnson, a director of F&G, in his personal capacity as owner of a 100 acre property at Mahana, near Nelson. Without doubt there was a strong element of retaliation by Rural News because of the trenchant criticism Mr Johnson, as spokesperson for F & G, had publicly levelled against farmers who fail to protect from animal pollution watercourses flowing through their properties.

The circumstances that gave rise to the complaint are large in their compass, particularly concerning such a subject as animal pollution of inland waterways, and do not lend themselves easily to straightforward answers. Nevertheless the Council does not uphold the complaint for reasons set our hereafter.

Mr Johnson is a director of F & G and in that capacity was the public spokesperson on the issue of lowland river water pollution. In the course of the campaign to keep waterways unpolluted some fairly robust and emotive language was used to gain maximum impact. Descriptions such as “dirty farming ”; “dairy industry pollution” had been used. The contest represents a classic case of two groups with firmly held, competing interests appealing to the public through the media for acceptance of their respective viewpoints.

Mr Johnson, and those writing on his behalf, has been at pains to point out no single farmer had been identified in their campaign as at fault, whereas the offending article attacked Mr Johnson personally. F & G have chosen to follow the safer course of referring to irresponsible farmers and other such generalised descriptions. To adopt any other tactic might have led them into deeper trouble that need not be explored here. However the farmers of New Zealand and their industry newspaper have not regarded this as ameliorating the situation for them as all farmers, good and bad, are embraced equally under the generalised attack. The exact extent of the campaign is not clear, but, Mr Johnson as spokesperson, has made the farmers the target of much unwanted and critical publicity.

A response of Rural News was to publish a by-lined personal and critical article on 17 September 2001 of Mr Johnson’s farming practices on a property partly owned by him at Mahana. The article had the headline “Dairy critics antics muddy the waters”, and a subsidiary headline on another page continuing the story - “Hypocritical critic”. Specific mention was made in the complaint about the headlines but the Council decision on the article embraces the headlines.

The opening 2 paragraphs of the front-page article sufficiently identify the content and tone of the item;

“THE PRE-EMINENT figure at Fish and Game is embroiled in a protracted dispute with a local authority for failing to comply with resource consents.

Fish and Game (F&G) has led the charge against farmers for not complying with the intent of the Resource Management Act.”

The article was reasonably long and detailed an alleged dispute among Mr Johnson, unidentified neighbours and the Tasman District Council over non compliance with consents granted under the Act to build a dam on the property. A District Council compliance officer (named) was quoted as saying non-compliance by Mr Johnson represents a “serious breach” of the RMA. Neighbours (unnamed) were reported as saying “ the offending dam and another already on the property, are not fenced off from cattle and sheep that graze the farm– a practise(sic) Fish and Game insists should be made mandatory for all farmers.” There were other allegations made and the article finished off with,

“Neighbours spoken to by “Rural News” say they find the inconsistency
between Johnson’s public utterances and private actions ‘breathtaking’. ”

It cannot be denied that by headlines and article content Rural News published a strongly worded attack on Mr Johnson basing it on the apparent contradiction existing between his public criticisms of New Zealand farmers and his own farming practice. The article made no attempt to balance the reported comments of the compliance officer and neighbours. Mr Johnson was not interviewed (deliberately) and he was accordingly given no opportunity to defend himself in the article. This factor was a strong element in his complaint to the Press Council. Rural News was careful to confine its focus on Mr Johnson’s conduct to those of farming practice and his alleged non-compliance with the RMA.

Following publication of the article Mr Johnson made lengthy and forceful complaints to the then editor of Rural News details of which have been supplied to the Press Council as part of his formal complaint.

Rural News printed on 1 October 2001 a response of Mr Johnson in an article under the headline “Critic cries foul”. He accused Rural News of overstating the problems he faced. He denied his property is a dry-stock farm but is an orchard and did concede
some small number of sheep and a few cattle were on the property. He challenged the District Council as treating the problems as “non-compliance with consents” as the opinion of the council which is “just one party involved in this.” The Press Council regards that as a telling comment suggesting underlying areas of factual dispute which the complainant has done little to resolve by disclosing details of exactly what was the complaint the District Council had against him. It seems Mr Johnson prefers to characterise the District Council’s complaints as “concluding requirements.” It has been left to the Press Council to deduce that Mr Johnson was somehow, or in some fashion, in a condition of non-compliance but little further is revealed. Instead the complainant seeks to concentrate the attention of the Press Council on the personal nature of the article and the alleged factual errors contained therein all of which he says amounts to material unfairness to him. Mr Johnson repeatedly claimed to be an absentee owner and objected to the article as inferring he “knowingly engaged in this behaviour”. The Press Council does not believe this claim assists his case.

The newspaper holds to its right to have printed the article and the critical editorial on his conduct on his farm property and that the criticisms are a valid response to the campaign of F&G spearheaded by him against the farming community. Rural News stands by its journalist and quoted sources in the article.

The criticism contained in the newspaper article did not precisely correspond with Mr Johnson’s campaign for fencing of waterways on farms generally throughout New Zealand but taking a broad view there is enough to justify bringing to the public’s attention his own discrepancies. Both cases are concerned with farm management and the implementation of the RMA. Mr Johnson possibly does have some grievances such as Rural News apparently choosing not to communicate with him about the contents of the article before publishing it, and for some errors. However the newspaper may say neither does he clear with them his criticisms before hand when he is on their case. This point is made in the editorial. The Council thinks it is a little naïve of Mr Johnson to say the newspaper, as a publisher, has a duty to be balanced and fair, an obligation, by inference he says does not lie on F&G as a lobby group with its public utterances. The answer to this is that these 2 bodies are engaged in a vigorous public debate on public problems and realistically one side cannot be restrained by a set of rules that may have application elsewhere. Rural News is unapologetically an industry newspaper that is an advocate for the farming community.

For the Council the deciding factor is freedom of expression notwithstanding the robustness and even confrontational nature of the debate. These are large public issues and a complaint resolution body should be cautious about intruding with its own criticisms of the parties' conduct. The proper course, the Council believes, is to let the parties slug it out in the public arena and let the interested people come to their own conclusions. The Council may entertain some doubt about some tactics employed on either side, but that is not dispositive – freedom of expression is.

The complaint is not upheld.