IAN SHEEN AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2086

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Columnists
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy

Introduction
Ian Sheen, president of the Levin branch of the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand, complained that the column entitled ‘World of Science’ by Bob Brockie in The Dominion Post breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance in references to research on the relative value of “organic” products. Mr Sheen further complained that the column presented comment as fact, and that The Dominion Post failed to correct its alleged errors.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
On December 8 2008 the Brockie column discussed organics and featured Dr Brockie’s views about the “misuse of the word organic”. In his column Dr Brockie said that the use of the word organic has been “corrupted and abused for sales promotion”. He outlined what in his view organic meant. He argued that assertions by organic promoters that their products were better tasting, healthier and better for the environment were “plain wishful thinking.”

Dr Brockie returned to the subject on December 22, 2008 to answer letters to the editor that had disagreed with his previous article.

Following the second column Mr Sheen wrote to The Dominion Post saying he believed Dr Brockie’s latest attacks on organics lacked scientific and journalistic integrity. His letter was not published.

Mr Sheen elaborated on his concerns about the articles in a further letter of complaint to the newspaper. He claimed that Dr Brockie had used “spurious argument, misrepresentation and misinformation to make a pre-meditated, prejudiced, pejorative attack on people with a differing point of view”, in particular the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand.

He said the article was “littered with deliberate untruths, misinformation, and gross misrepresentation” and he believed that the sole purpose of the articles was to denigrate and ridicule others with whom the columnist disagreed. He also said that the arguments used by Dr Brockie were dated and more current research was available.

The Dominion Post replied that the articles were opinion pieces and appeared in the section of The Dominion Post that carried opinion and commentary.

Mr Sheen did not consider this an acceptable response from the newspaper and made a formal complaint to the Press Council.

The Response
Nick Wrench, acting editor for The Dominion Post said, in reply to the Press Council, that the articles were clearly opinion pieces and did not breach any Principle of the Press Council.

He went on to say that the columnist was “entitled to express his honestly held opinions”, and again noted that the articles appeared in the section of The Dominion Post that carries opinion columns and commentaries. He also stated that while some may find the quotes used by Dr Brockie controversial, they were accurate quotes.

Conclusion
The Press Council is not qualified to adjudicate on factual issues of science or on whether research conclusions have been fairly and accurately represented in a column of this nature.

The Council accepts that the Brockie column is well known to its readers who might be able to make allowance for his willingness to differ from the mainstream.

However the average reader is not always in a position to recognise when such assertions may be a matter of opinion. If their accuracy is disputed, the newspaper has some obligation to publish a contrary view.

In this case The Dominion Post did publish two letters in response to Dr Brockie's column on organics, to which he replied in a subsequent column. That brought a letter from Mr Sheen which the newspaper declined to publish, giving rise to his complaint that the paper has refused to correct errors.

The Press Council understands the newspaper's decision not to publish Mr Sheen's letter. Having already published two views that differed from those of Dr Brockie, The Dominion Post could not be accused of unwillingness to “correct” its columnist and accordingly the second and third grounds of complaint cannot be upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.