GREG RZESNIOWIECKI AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 2574
Council Meeting: APRIL 2017
Verdict: Not Upheld
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
1. Although somewhat long and discursive, the essential element of Mr Rzesniowiecki’s complaint is unfair moderation by Stuff relating to the posting of online comments submitted by Mr Rzesniowiecki, and their refusal to link to a number of external sites.
2. The Council has already rejected similar complaints from two complainants on the basis that the complaints are analogous to non-publication of letters to the editor. In those cases, no adjudication was issued. Given that this matter has the potential to lead to ongoing complaints, we have considered it appropriate in these circumstances to accept this complaint and set forth the views of the Press Council.
3. In the complaint, Mr Rzesniowiecki alleges breaches of Principle 1 accuracy, fairness and balance; Principle 4 comment and fact; and Principle 5 columns, blogs, opinions and letters.
4. Mr Rzesniowiecki is clearly a blogger, and on his blog site seeks public advocacy donations. He has supplied the Council with a very lengthy complaint and reply. He has also set out extensive email correspondence with Stuff, and one of his own blogs.
5. We do not think it necessary to analyse this plethora of material. It would be fair to summarise Mr Rzesniowiecki’s position as being someone who believes that the mainstream media works with governments and their agencies to prevent the widespread dissemination of information which he thinks is important — indeed critical in a democratic society. He says breaches of the relevant Principles occur when moderators refuse to post his comments or to give links to other sites he considers relevant. He also considered that the decision of Stuff impinged on his right of freedom of expression.
6. The editor, Patrick Crewdson, referred to the terms and conditions for user-submitted content and comments, set out on the Stuff website.
7. The focus of his response is that he considers such comments to be analogous to letters to the editor, and notes the Press Council’s long-running recognition that it is the editor’s prerogative as to what letters and opinion pieces to publish. He refers to earlier decisions supporting this view, to which we will return. He states that Stuff takes that Principle seriously when moderating comments received and making decisions whether to reject or place them online.
8. He stresses Stuff is entitled to rely on its Terms and Conditions relating to online content. This includes limiting the publication of links outside of Stuff and New Zealand government sites. He says Stuff does not have the resources to check the accuracy and safety of other web sites.
9. He makes the supplementary point regarding the large number of comments that Stuff receives from readers on a daily basis. He states these are approximately 5000, of which 75 per cent are approved and 25 per cent rejected. He goes on to say that if only one per cent of rejected comments resulted in formal complaints, the Press Council would be receiving more than 12 complaints per day.
10. At the outset, we make it clear that the Stuff Terms and Conditions relating to online comment are a matter between Stuff and its readership. The Press Council has no jurisdiction over such terms and conditions. However, we do see those Terms and Conditions, particularly those relating to links to unchecked sites, to be a reasonable position for a publisher to take.
11. The matter of letters to the editor is covered by Principle 5 which, where relevant, reads:
Letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance, and public interest. Abridgement is acceptable but should not distort meaning.
12. It is clear this means that whether or not a letter is published is within the prerogative of the editor. They are advised to be guided in doing this by the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance.
13. Mr Crewdson is correct to point out that as early as 1999 the principle was cited, and for some considerable time the Council has rejected complaints about non-publication of letters from the public.
14. In the decision cited by Mr Crewdson, Case 2470, the Council stated:
An editor can both decide which letters and opinion pieces to publish as well as when to close the curtain or close a discussion topic within his or her publication.
15. The critical question in this case is whether online content (sourced from the general public) can be seen as analogous to letters. We are satisfied it can.
16. As Mr Crewdson pointed out in his response, there are limits on what content will be published, both through editorial discretion and through adherence to the published Rules for Letters (in the case of newspapers), and the Terms and Conditions between the media online sites and their readership (in the case of websites). We consider it would be artificial to suggest that they are somehow different. Since the advent of newspapers, readers have had the opportunity to forward letters commenting on various topics to the newspaper for publication. Our Principle 5 makes it clear that the publication or non-publication of such letters is at the discretion of the editor. We see no difference between the invitations to the readership of online media content to comment on various matters that are published online and the traditional letters to the editor. The earlier form of letter was received by way of envelope and postage; the latter form of online content is received electronically. But that physical difference does not change the fact that both give readers the chance to comment. In that sense, we are satisfied that online comment is clearly analogous to the letters to the editor, and in the view of the Council should be subject to the same principle.
17. Accordingly, the Council is satisfied that online comments are analogous to letters to the editor, and their publication is at the prerogative of the editor, pursuant to Principle 5. Therefore, the complaint is not upheld.
18. We reiterate that the Terms and Conditions for online comment are a matter between the online publisher and its readership. It is not a matter for the Council, nor do we have any jurisdiction to interfere in it.
19. We note Mr Crewdson’s comments relating to the potential for a very significant increase in the work of the Press Council if this complaint was upheld. (Indeed he suggests to unmanageable levels). We have put those comments to one side. They are irrelevant to our consideration and the work load factor, on its own, would not have been a ground not to uphold the complaint.
20. In those circumstances, complaints about the non-publication of comments in online forums established by parties subject to the jurisdiction of the Press Council will not be accepted.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.