G VAN MEURS AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2094

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Censorship, Supression of Fact
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Editorial Discretion
Editorial Freedom
Obligation to Publish

Gerard Van Meurs complained that Christchurch newspaper, The Press, had breached his rights to freedom of expression, because it heavily edited or omitted to publish some of his letters to the editor. The newspaper said it did this because of extensive referencing in the letters. Mr Van Meurs said he had been subject to censorship.

The complaint was not upheld.

The Complaint
Mr Van Meurs advised he had been a regular letter writer to The Press for six years, submitting “politically inspired” Letters to the Editor. He commonly backed his opinions with evidence derived from literature or Internet sources.

He said The Press consistently removed virtually all his references to sources. He said this denied him the right to impart information to others. He stressed that in no way was he complaining about the editor's right to reject, abridge or edit letters for linguisitic, spelling, style and other literary errors.

He said letters to the editor provide a democratically healthy counterweight to the news media's selective publication of material.

He also provided an example of one of his letters which was published after being heavily edited, and a reply to that stripped-down letter, which he said was factually inaccurate. He said his efforts to correct this failed.

He said removal of his supporting evidence amounted to censorship, and that freedom to express oneself was an integral and inalienable part of the democratic process.

He also cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Human Rights Act, to back his case.

His complaint to the Press Council cited one of its objects: To promote freedom of speech and freedom of the press in New Zealand.

The Newspaper’s Response
Editor Andrew Holden disputed the reference to the ICCPR. He said it was far-fetched to claim that it guaranteed a person's access to a newspaper's columns.

He said editors decided the content of their newspapers. The references cited by Mr Van Meurs in his letters were inappropriate, as The Press was not a scholarly journal in which contributors provided references and footnotes. The Press’ general rule was to remove such references, because space was limited, and to avoid littering the page with such material. It did not believe this inhibited the free expression of readers’ own opinions.

He said Mr Van Meurs had been consistently advised this. The Press had replied to his frequent questions, explaining its actions.

Further, The Press had not denied Mr Van Meurs the right to express his views, noting the 28 letters it had published from him in 24 months. (Mr Van Meurs himself noted that 65 of his letters have been published in six years.)

Mr Holden rejected any suggestion that the Human Rights Act, the ICCPR and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act had any bearing on the complaint and provided legal argument to support his case.

He cited the Press Council’s statement of principles on letters to the editor, which said “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.” The Press did not believe it impinged on that principle by removing references and the like.
Discussion and Decision
Selection and publication of letters is the editor’s prerogative, as noted in the Press Council’s statement of principles. The Council notes that Mr Van Meurs has had many letters published by The Press, over many years. If such a letter is submitted, it should be published in such a form which accurately reflects its contents, or rejected.
Newspapers cannot give everyone unrestricted ability to express views, and or be required to allow writers to back those views with a list of sources. What they can do, however, is give readers the chance to express their personal views concisely, and assess them for publication on their merits, as space permits.
The Press Council accepts the newspaper’s argument that the ICCPR and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act relate to actions between a government and its people and do not impose a duty on any private individual or entity. They do not apply in this situation.
The Press Council does not believe Mr Van Meurs has been subject to censorship, as he claims.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.