KAREN BATCHELOR AGANST BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

Case Number: 2295

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage


Karen Batchelor, on behalf of the American Pit Bull Terrier Association of NZ, complained about a news report and two subsequent opinion pieces published in the Bay of Plenty Times. She cited the principles referring to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Comment and Fact, Discrimination and Diversity and Subterfuge.
Her complaint is not upheld.

Background
On October 9, 2012 the newspaper published a brief report about a dog attack on a woman who had received puncture wounds. The report was accompanied by a photograph of a pit bull.
In the same issue, a columnist commented on another dog attack in which three dogs had killed two family cats.
His column was entitled “tackling a feral menace”.
He pointed out that the dogs in question were “pit bull-like” and he suggested that many owners of such dogs want to be tough but end up by not controlling them and the dogs become a menace.
Four days later the newspaper’s editorial was headed “Dog owners deluding themselves”.
The writer expressed the view that there are on-going problems with aggressive dogs and pointed in particular to “mongrel dogs with bull traits” and “pitbulls and their crosses”.
The editorial also included the comment, “pitbull owners and lovers are a deluded bunch and that ongoing delusion is as dangerous as the unpredictable dogs themselves”.
The same day the newspaper carried an “inside story” which was a broad examination of dog attacks. Ms Batchelor was interviewed and her views received considerable coverage.

The Complaint
Karen Batchelor contacted the newspaper to point out that the photo accompanying the news report was inaccurate and misleading – the breed of dog involved in the attack was not a pit bull.
She also argued that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous, nor are their owners invariably dangerous. The claims made by in the editorial and in the opinion column were, in her view, inaccurate, unfair, biased and offensive.
She took particular exception to the various disparaging comments made about pit bull owners, claiming that this was “grossly offensive” to the majority of owners.
She supplied a range of information to the newspaper outlining how human behavior is crucial in determining the cause of dog attacks, not the breed of dog involved.
Her supplied material also stressed that it was often difficult to identify the breed of dog involved in attacks with any real accuracy. For example, many such dogs were frequently cross-bred.
Dissatisfied with the newspaper’s response to her initial complaint, Ms Batchelor then made a formal complaint to the Press Council, citing the principles referring to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Comment and Fact, Discrimination and Diversity and Subterfuge.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor accepted and regretted that the photograph with the original news report was misleading and acknowledged that the caption should have explained that a file picture had been used. He noted that the photo had been changed immediately they knew the breed involved (a shar pei cross).
The newspaper had also published a correction and an apology (online) once the mistake had been noticed.
However, the editor defended the opinion pieces. Both the column and the editorial reflected the honestly held views of the writers and, moreover, the newspaper was entitled to adopt a forthright stance.
He pointed out that opinion pieces are not necessarily balanced and by their very nature can be provocative.
The newspaper had invited the complainant to submit an opinion piece of her own, expressing her views on the issue.

Discussion and Decision
The Press Council considers that the use of the photograph above the news report was an honest mistake by the newspaper, one which was freely acknowledged and corrected as soon as possible. It also notes that the online version is now very careful to point out that a file photo has been used and that it does not depict the dog in the attack.
Ms Batchelor disagrees with the views of the columnist and the editorial writer and disputes much of the information they present, but the content was not misleading as she contends. For example, the complainant questioned the expertise of John Payne, the Tauranga City Council manager of environmental compliance, in relation to identification of breeds and understanding dog behaviour and says he is “misguided”, but the Bay of Plenty Times was entitled to call on someone with his experience and to carry his view that “pitbulls cannot be trusted”.
The two pieces that are complained about were clearly presented as opinion pieces.
The Press Council has often stressed that such pieces do not have to be balanced, as long as they are not deliberately misleading nor dishonest.
An occasional comment was forceful, even robust, but even the statement that “pitbull owners and lovers are a deluded bunch” does not invite readers to discriminate against them. The Press Council is satisfied that such comment sits well within the boundaries of free expression.
The complainant cited Subterfuge in her complaint but the Press Council could discern no sign of that.
Finally, the Council notes that the views of the complainant (and the American Pit Bull Terrier Association) were given some prominence in the inside feature published on the very same day as the editorial. Further, the newspaper has invited Ms Batchelor to submit her own opinion piece.
For the reasons given above this complaint, about a biased, prejudiced and unbalanced approach by the newspaper, is not upheld.


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