JOHN TANNAHILL AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2195

Council Meeting: JULY 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Offensive Language
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

John Tannahill complained about a Sunday Star-Times opinion column alleging the column was inaccurate, unfair, unbalanced and abusive.

His complaint is not upheld.

Background
On April 24 2011 an opinion article was published in the Sunday Star-Times, written by Richard Boock, on the subject of the use of whips in horse racing. The article was clearly labelled ‘Opinion’ and went on to criticise horse racing as less “the Sport of Kings these days as the Sport of Sickos”. Mr Boock suggested that readers show their opposition to the practice of ‘horses being flogged and abused’ by not attending the races.

On Monday April 25 Mr Tannahill attempted to send an email to Mr Boock complaining about the article in extremely intemperate terms. Mr Tannahill objected to being referred to as SICKO (sic). He sent the email to an incorrect email address, but cc-ed the editor of the Sunday Star-Times into the email.

The editor replied the next day, stating that while he was ‘less than impressed’ himself, columnists are actively encouraged to express their views even when these are unpopular.
He further stated that “I do expect them to stop short of offensiveness…while Richard is free to despise whips in racing…that does not mean it is acceptable to damn an entire industry”.

Mr Tannahill emailed the editor back on April 28 in a friendly tone, stating that ‘I am informed that you have asked [Racing editor] Barry Lichter to write a reply to the Boock rendition. That will be good. I was prepared to write one myself but now I will rely on Barry Lichter”. He further stated that he had not received an acknowledgement from Mr Boock to his emails, and requested the editor to ask Mr Boock to send an apology. If this was not received, action would be taken against him and the paper.

Later that day the editor replied by email, stating that he had invited Mr Boock to come along and have a chat, but had not heard back yet.

The next email sent by Mr Tannahill to Mr Boock was dated April 29 and contained a series of statements followed by multiple question marks, emphasising that Mr Tannahill was still waiting, that Mr Boock should apologise or face the consequences, and requesting him to look at a youtube clip, the contents of which were quite objectionable.

It is not clear from the email addresses, but he must have sent a copy of this email to the editor, who replied the same day commenting on gracious responses in other emails he had received on the topic, contrasting these with the tone of Mr Tannahill’s emails. Mr Tannahill replied on May 14 that the editor was “an incredible disappointment”, that all he had wanted was an apology and that he now intended to take formal steps for defamation against Mr Boock and the paper [this was later rescinded when the complaint went to the Press Council].

The Complaint
On the May 14 Mr Tannahill wrote to the Press Council complaining that the Boock article was inaccurate, unfair, unbalanced and abusive. While he accepted that Mr Boock was entitled to his views, “he has classified all people like me as SICKOS”. He described the editor as “a mamby pamby who keeps fobbing people off”, stating that racing people had been informed that Barry Lichter would be writing a reply, but then the editor had not asked Mr Lichter to do this. Mr Tannahill stated that over 26,000 people in New Zealand derived their income from the racing industry, and that he would like to see Boock horse whipped although he accepted this was far from likely.

The Star-Times editor’s response:
The editor replied on May 31 reiterating that the piece was clearly labelled as opinion; that letters were published the following week both for and against the columnist’s views; that Mr Lichter’s involvement had been discussed but as he was on leave the newspaper had decided to publish the letters instead; and that many emails, including “a video of a man masturbating” had been sent by Mr Tannahill. He further stated that Mr Boock had received death threats [by whom it is unclear]. The editor did not plan to spend further time on the matter.
Mr Tannahill, in a further letter to the Press Council dated June 13, stated that he had not written a reply to the article because of his belief that Mr Lichter was to do so; that he objected to being referred to as “Tannahill”; that his “tongue in cheek comment” in his letter to the Council had not been understood by the editor (this refers to having Mr Boock horsewhipped); that Mr Boock was not entitled to call people sickos and that while the paper had published a range of letters, he stated that there were more that were not published, nor had the NZ Racing Industry been given any opportunity to reply. He claimed that his video link was “comical, not offensive”.

Discussion
The facts in this case are not disputed. Both Mr Tannahill and the editor accepted Mr Boock’s article as opinion. They also agreed that there had been discussion about Mr Lichter’s involvement, although this had not happened in the end. Both agreed that a range of letters on the topic had been published.
Mr Tannahill may have held back from writing a response because of his belief that Mr Lichter was to do so, but there would have been no obligation on the paper to have published his response had he written it.
Where Mr Tannahill took issue was with Mr Boock’s claim that people involved in the industry were ‘sickos’. The editor’s initial response appeared to agree with him, in the statement that “that does not mean it is acceptable to damn an entire industry”.
However, Mr Tannahill’s subsequent offensive language and the sending of a video clip that he deemed to be ‘comical’ but others might well find offensive, appear to have dissuaded the editor from further consideration of the complaint. The fact that he sent his initial complaint to Mr Boock to an incorrect email is his error and probably contributed to his failure to receive a prompt reply from Mr Boock, who had obviously been alerted to the situation subsequently by his editor, and via a later, equally intemperate, email from Mr Tannahill.

Conclusion
If complainants to a paper feel that they have a legitimate complaint, they would be wise to pursue this complaint in a temperate manner. The editor’s response to Mr Tannahill was always prompt, and initially warm, but Mr Tannahill’s subsequent stream of emails appears to have soured the correspondence. No journalist, in the Council’s opinion, should have to put up with being the recipient of obscene videos and the kind of intemperate language in which Mr Tannahill expressed himself.
The column is an opinion column, hence may express an opinion and even, on occasions, offend. Opinion columns do not need to be balanced, and although Mr Tannahill alleges inaccuracy this point was not developed. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Barry Lichter piece did not eventuate, but the Council is satisfied that an alternative point of view was expressed through the letters to the editor. It was also noticeable from the published letters that there were many readers who agreed with the column.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.