GEOFFREY DUNBAR AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 1048

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2006

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy

Geoffrey Dunbar complained as a third party to the Press Council against The Press, alleging that a paragraph in an article published in that paper on 8 November 2005 misreported Maori Party MPs’ actions at their parliamentary swearing-in. He has stated in his complaint that this misreporting constitutes a case of inaccuracy and unfairness.

The complaint is upheld.

Background
The complaint relates to a phrase published in The Press in an article reporting on the opening of Parliament –“ Sombre Opening to Parliament”. The bulk of the article related to Parliament’s farewell to Green Party co-leader Rod Donald, who had recently died. The front-page article carried over to A7, where the phrase objected to was published.

Towards the end of the article, the following paragraph appeared:

“The only note of controversy came when each of the new Maori Party MPs attempted to swear their oath of allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi instead of the Queen. Each was made to repeat the oath omitting the reference”.

The Basis of the Complaint
Mr Dunbar wrote to the editor on 10 November 2005, having previously contacted the writer of the article, an experienced parliamentary reporter, particularly complaining about the phrase: “The only note of controversy came when each of the new Maori Party MPs attempted to swear their oath of allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi instead of the Queen.”

He explained in his letter that his understanding is that the Treaty reference was appended to the unaltered standard oath that all the other MPs swore (or affirmed), when the Maori Party MPs initially took the oath. This meant that the Maori Party MPs’ first oath was to the Queen and the Treaty. The words “instead of” implied that the Maori Party MPs had not sworn loyalty to the Queen. He called on the newspaper to publish a correction and an apology.

Mr Dunbar was asked to amend his initial letter so that it could be considered for publication. This he did.

Mr Dunbar further complained about the “inexcusable delay” in his November letter not being published until 19 January, 2006. Also, when it was eventually published there was no apology or retraction of what he considered an error in the 8 November 2005 article.

The Newspaper’s Response
The Editor of The Press, in responding on 8 December 2005 to Mr Dunbar’s complaint, made the following points:

1. The phrase, and the paragraph in which it was placed, was only a small part of a much bigger report.
2. What the Maori MPs (sic) swore when they first took the oaths is not entirely clear. The oaths were spoken in Maori. The Press reporter does not speak Maori.
3. However, the reporter did hear a reference to Te Tiriti O Waitangi. This was contrary to the requirement that MPs speak the oath from the words provided by the Clerk of the House on a card they were reading from. The Clerk therefore required them to take the oath again.
4. Contrary to what Mr Dunbar asserts in his complaint, the matter does not seem to have been of significance to Maori MPs (sic), or to anyone other than Mr Dunbar.
5. The Editor suggested Mr Dunbar submit a letter to The Press for publication.

In a further letter (18 January 2006) to the Press Council, the Editor regrets that Mr Dunbar’s letter for publication had not made it to publication in November. He further points out that the complaint was about a two-sentence paragraph in a much longer article, and that the Maori Party MPs themselves had not complained.

The Complainant’s Response
Mr Dunbar feels that this complaint is a serious one. The precedent-setting action referred to in the paragraph quoted above, although given scant notice in The Press article, was reported widely throughout New Zealand. Mr Dunbar states in his complaint that he thoroughly researched other media reports of the swearing-in procedure, and that all reported that the Maori Party MPs swore allegiance to the Crown and to the Treaty of Waitangi.

He further contends that the newspaper had a responsibility to find accurate translations for the swearing-in oaths (which were spoken in Maori), and that it is not sufficient excuse to say that the reporter does not speak Maori nor was a translation provided.

He states that getting the facts right is a matter of responsible journalism. He goes on to say that in the current social climate in New Zealand, there are many people ready to believe that Maori Party MPs are guilty of disloyalty to the Crown.

Conclusion
The Press Council upholds this complaint.

Although the passage referred to was brief, and a small part of a substantial lead story, nevertheless the paper had a responsibility to “get it right”.

New Zealand has two official languages, and all people in official circumstances have the right to speak in either English or Maori (te reo). For that reason, the Press Council does not accept the Editor’s contention that because the Maori Party MPs were taking their oaths in Maori and no translation was provided, it was difficult to be totally accurate.

Where a newspaper does not have a reporter who speaks Maori, it is the role of the responsible journalist to check the facts with someone who is able to verify what was actually said, and to report this accurately.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Clive Lind, and John Gardner.