GORDON COPELAND AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 2030

Council Meeting: MAY 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Columnists
Accuracy
Misleading

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the Independent MP, Gordon Copeland (formerly a United Future MP) against the New Zealand Listener. His complaint related to a sentence in a political opinion piece by Jane Clifton, published in the Listener on December 29, 2007.

Mr Copeland and Ms Clifton appeared before the Council to make submissions in support of their respective positions on the article.

Background
The article, entitled Little ‘Bro Town, gave the columnist’s summary of the year’s political events. The final paragraph of the article referred to Mr Copeland, his “shunning” of United Future over the anti-smacking bill, and then missing the vote. It also stated (the words particularly complained about) “the devout Christian also admitted lying to his former leader Peter Dunne about his intentions” [to leave the party].

The Complaint
Mr Copeland stated that he had never admitted lying to his former leader, Peter Dunne, about his intentions, for the simple reason that he never lied to him; accordingly that part of the sentence was a fabrication.

There were other comments in the paragraph that he had initially complained about, but these complaints were satisfied by the publication of his letter to the editor on 19 January 2008. However, the part of the sentence referring to his admitting to lying to his leader was deliberately misleading, unprofessional, unfair and wrong.

The Editor’s Response
In her initial response to the complaint from Mr Copeland, the editor pointed out to him that in interviews both he and the leader, Peter Dunne, were asked whether Mr Copeland had plans to leave United Future, and “you said no”.

Ms Clifton, in writing her article, was confirming Mr Dunne’s impression of events; clearly Mr Dunne “considers himself to have been lied to, both by commission and by omission”.

The editor noted that Mr Copeland’s own view on the matter, that “you did not lie and could not therefore have admitted lying” was given prominence in the Listener’s Letters to the Editor column.

In responding to the formal complaint to the Press Council, the editor stated that the Listener upholds the rights of columnists to describe, record and comment upon the events they choose to write about. What they write is clearly signaled as their own opinion.

She reiterated that her columnist’s take on the events was confirmed by Mr Dunne.

Conclusion
The events leading up to Mr Copeland leaving the United Future party were clearly distressing to all parties. That there are differing views of discussions that were held in private is inevitable, given the tensions involved. Mr Copeland has furnished the Press Council with his version of events leading to his resignation from the party.

The Press Council has consistently defended the right of opinion pieces to express columnists’ view of events from their perspective. Where the columnist has taken due care to get to the truth, and is not deliberately being misleading, then the writer is able to give an interpretation of an event which may be different from that one or more of those involved in it.

In this case, Mr Copeland considers that he did not lie; rather he withheld information from Mr Dunne. He is offended by being reported as “admitting to lying” because he did not make this admission. However, Mr Dunne clearly believes that this omission was a lie, given the circumstances.

The Listener published in a timely fashion the complainant’s letter in which he states categorically that he did not lie, and did not admit to lying.

The Press Council believes that in this instance, the editor has taken the appropriate steps to deal with the complaint. For that reason, this complaint to the Press Council is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.

Kate Coughlan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.