Case Number: 987

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2004

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Critic Te Arohi

Ruling Categories: Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge

An Otago University PhD student, Glenn Peoples, has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about actions of the university students’ association magazine, Critic Te Arohi.

The Press Council, which receives few complaints about student magazines, nonetheless was happy to accept this one. Critic Te Arohi some time ago indicated its willingness to come within the Council’s jurisdiction.

The Press Council has part-upheld the complaint.

Mr Peoples advanced four particulars in his complaint, which centres on an article in the April 26 magazine, Issue 8. That article refers to a number of apparently fictitious letters to the editor about the Otago University Students Association’s purchase of the university bookshop from Whitcoulls. The matter was of interest because the association spent $740,000 of student funds on the purchase.

In the previous issue, Critic devoted three pages to the bookshop purchase, which were largely supportive. The next week, in Issue 8, Critic returned to the topic, this time concentrating on reaction to the purchase.

It also published four letters on the subject, including one each from Mr Peoples and his wife Ruth. Its news coverage, written by news editor Holly Walker, bore the heading, Critic bombarded with falsified letters. That report was accompanied by a sidebar, A litany of lies, which named the letter writers whose details Critic staff could not verify.

It was the Walker article and publication of his letter that brought Mr Peoples to the Press Council after Critic editor Hamish McKenzie refused to act on his complaint.

The “falsified letters” article told readers that, after publication of Issue 7, Critic received 14 letters on the bookshop sale that expressed broadly similar sentiments. These sentiments echoed those in Mr Peoples’s letter – he is the national spokesman for Student Choice, a lobby group that opposes mandatory association membership for tertiary students – and in that from his wife. She signed her name only as “Ruth Elizabeth”. Both letters were published, Mr Peoples’ with his student ID number printed below, Mrs Peoples named only as Ruth Elizabeth, and two others whose details had been confirmed.

Critic’s Letters to the Editor rules – spelled out each week on its Letters page – stipulate: “It’s okay to submit a letter for publication under a pseudonym but all letters (including emails) must include full contact details, even if you don’t want them printed. We discourage the use of pseudonyms for serious topics”.

In her “falsified letters” report, Walker wrote: “When it was put to Peoples that an organised campaign of falsified letters to Critic had been undertaken by people sympathetic to the views of Student Choice, he replied: ‘If it has, I have had no part in it’.”

Mr Peoples told the Press Council that he was chiefly concerned that Critic implied he was behind the letters whose details could not be confirmed. He believed he was being accused of dishonesty, an accusation that, given his position with Student Choice, “undermined my integrity and damaged my public image”. Mr Peoples sought a public apology from Critic for having created an erroneous impression.

He also wanted public acknowledgement that a misunderstanding during a phone conversation between him and Walker had left the public impression that he had provided contact details for someone who had not written to the magazine.

Finally, he sought a published apology for Critic’s having printed his student ID number, and an apology to his wife for Walker’s having used her full name as one of the letter-writers whose identity she was able to verify.

Mr McKenzie made clear to the Council his and the magazine’s concern with the provenance of the 10 letters whose writers’ details could not be confirmed. He rejected Mr Peoples’s claim that Walker’s article in Issue 8 created the impression that he and his wife were responsible for, or contributed to a letter writing campaign.

He rejected Mr Peoples’ request for a public acknowledgement of a misunderstanding between the parties over a misheard name (which he conceded had occurred), saying it was not germane to the complaint. He also defended his use of Mr Peoples’s ID number, saying he believed Mr Peoples would have wanted it used to prove he was a bona fide student given comments in his published letter.

As far as Ruth Peoples’ full name being used in Walker’s article, Mr McKenzie argued that was a matter of fact.

The Council upheld Mr Peoples’ complaint against Critic’s having left uncorrected the impression that he had given the magazine the contact details of someone who had not written to it at all.

In terms of the complaints other three legs, however, the Council did not find that the magazine acted unethically. Critic had been justified in checking its suspicions about the dubious letters with Mr Peoples, given the tone of his own letter and his involvement with Student Choice. It set out his denial clearly within the article.

Its use of his student ID number – though unusual – was, the Council said, quite reasonable considering that Mr Peoples was emphasising to another letter writer that he was, in fact, a student and he himself had included it under his signature without any qualification about its use.

None of the information provided to the Council indicated whether or not Walker made clear to Mr Peoples that their conversation about fictitious letters was for quoting in an article.

Without such information, the Council cannot uphold Mr Peoples’s final complaint that Critic wrongly published his wife’s full name in that article. The magazine had kept faith with its Letters policy by using only the name “Ruth Elizabeth” under her published letter. In the article, however, it had done no more than state a fact – that Ruth Elizabeth and Ruth Peoples were one and the same.

The Council commended to Critic – and to all publications published for public consumption – that – bar the most unusual of circumstances – their journalists make all interview subjects aware at the outset of their conversation that the resulting interview is intended for publication, where that is the journalist’s intention.

The complaint is, therefore, part upheld.