Case Number: 794

Council Meeting: August 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Bias
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Ms K.V.Bythell concerning the publication of a letter in the Letters to the Editor column of The Press on 6 April 2000. The letter in question was part of a vigorous debate on native timber logging on the West Coast of New Zealand. The complaint was that the letter published alleged that Nicky Hager, author of Secrets and Lies, a book about West Coast logging had himself told lies in his book.

There is relevant background to cover before reasons for the decision are explained. In March and the following months of this year the issue of West Coast logging was probably one of the more controversial matters before the public in that part of the country, and as the West Coast is within the catchment area of the newspaper it was fully covered there. The debate had been a political issue in last year's election. Brian Molloy wrote the letter to which exception is taken. One of his previous letters had drawn a response from a correspondent that Mr Molloy should read Mr Hager's book Secrets and Lies for a true picture of the West Coast logging problem. Mr Molloy responded with this sentence in a letter to the editor: "Given that the book contains lies regarding two of my siblings, Press readers will appreciate my scepticism of everything it contains." He gave no further details in the letter to support the allegation that lies were contained in the book.

The first reaction came from Mr Hager himself in a complaint to the editor about the sentence. In an e-mail to the editor the day after publication of Mr Molloy's letter Mr Hager said: "…I am staggered that you would publish the claim that I write lies, especially without checking the facts or checking the allegation with me." The deputy editor responded to that communication to Mr Hager in which he stated: "You are the author of a book called Secrets and Lies in which you make robust assertions. Robust debate is a feature of the Letters to the Editor column of The Press." The editor offered Mr. Hager space in the letters' column to reply but that was not taken up by him.

There was no further communication to The Press from Mr Hager but the complainant Ms Bythell (who has a Christchurch address) took up the same issue with a formal complaint to the Press Council. Ms Bythell's complaint was on the same lines as Mr. Hager's first e-mail to The Press but very much expanded and argued in greater detail. The responses of the editor to Ms Bythell's complaint also were along the lines of the deputy editor's first response to Mr Hager himself. The essence of the complaint and the reply are contained above and no useful purpose will be achieved in repeating them in detail.

The central point, it seems to the Council, is that the word "lies" was contained in the title of the book. No doubt the author for its impact and provocative challenge deliberately chose it. It is so natural that an opponent of Mr Hager's viewpoint would reply in kind that it could be said to have been predictable. The complainant would respond that Mr Hager's book furnishes details of his allegations whereas the letter does not. But that would involve the editor in a fact checking exercise of the work of others.

As it is not the responsibility of the editor of a newspaper to examine the alleged lies as contained in the book it is also not the responsibility of the editor to supervise the debate by not publishing the letter without supporting particulars of allegations, or in any other way. It is in the context of the title of the book, and the whole debate, that the allowance of the word lies in the letter is to be judged by the Press Council. The Letters to the Editor column is to provide a public forum where the debate, in certain circumstances, may be blunt and direct. The issue of the native logging of timber on the West Coast was, in the opinion of the editor, a subject that should reflect the extent and depth of feeling of the debate and he made his decisions accordingly. There was no unfairness in the editor's decision to publish the letter.

The complaint is not upheld.