LA LECHE LEAGUE NEW ZEALAND AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY
Case Number: 2264
Council Meeting: JUNE AND AUGUST 2012
Verdict: Upheld in Part
Publication: Herald On Sunday
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
The complaints related to 23 articles or items published between February 5 and February 19 of which 10 were published in the Herald on Sunday and 13 were published in the New Zealand Herald. A March 18 article in the Herald on Sunday was added later.
The League noted that some articles included with their complaint were unobjectionable, but were included to provide an accurate perception of context.
Complaints about coverage in the New Zealand Herald are the subject of a separate ruling.
The complaints about accuracy and unfairness are upheld in part.
On February 5, 2012, highlighted by a page one skybox featuring Piri Weepu holding a baby and the heading, Piri’s Bottle Ban – All Black dad warned: Breast is best, the newspaper reported how images of the All Black bottle-feeding his baby had been cut after protests from “breast-feeding crusaders.”
The newspaper reported how the League had taken offence at a few seconds of film showing the All Black feeding his child with a bottle of milk.
The paper reported the Health Sponsorship Council advertisement was part of an anti-smoking campaign, and quoted the council’s chief executive, Iain Potter, as saying La Leche and Plunket had been consulted about the clip.
He was reported as saying people associated with the League had initiated an email campaign against the advertisement. “He happened to feed the 6-month-old briefly while we were there. It was a nice little poignant moment but we understand the sensitivities around it,” the newspaper reported.
The article also quoted the League’s director, Alison Stanton, who said the trouble wasn’t with Weepu bottle-feeding but the overall message.
The article included the paragraph: “Asked what was wrong with Weepu cuddling and feeding a baby, she said: ‘You’ve got the healthy eating message, exercise, breastfeeding, smoke-free environment, wearing safety belts and this is about giving consistent health messages.’ ”
The newspaper also wrote an editorial headed Too much fuss over a bottle boob, describing a “furious response from breast-feeding advocacy groups, led by La Leche League and the New Zealand College of Midwives” because it undermined campaigns to promote and support breastfeeding, particularly among Maori.
The editorial among other things said: “But the naysayers’ reaction has a rather distasteful whiff of patch-protection about it” and argued that if the groups hadn’t spoken up, nobody else would have noticed.
“The substantive message that viewers would have taken away from the sequence that has been edited out is of a tough-guy father showing tenderness – an image rich in beneficial implication, in an age when men’s physical abuse of children is a constant heartache. No one who does not spend all day worrying about breast-feeding, would have seen it as undermining of the idea that breast is best.”
The newspaper returned to the story the following week, February 12, with a still picture from the clip, somewhat confusingly claiming to reveal for the first time the image La Leche “didn’t want you to see” – an image the newspaper conceded was already on Facebook.
The article went on to say that the League had encouraged supporters to bombard the council with hundreds of emails – “many of which were vitriolically worded.”
Another headlined Natural born killjoys wrote of the “tyranny of childbirth” and said of the image: “For the La Leche League, it will confirm all its worst fears. It shows a gorgeous, healthy baby girl in the embrace of a loving dad. To La Leche, this image glorifies bottle-feeding.
“We, the public, were deemed too silly to watch the clip in an anti-smoking ad without wanting to make a beeline to the nearest supermarket to stock up on evil baby formula.”
There was another editorial pointing out how the league’s “crude attempt at censorship” had come back and spattered them in their faces. And in the most perverse manner.”
Subsequently, columnists and letter-writers weighed in on the topic, and there were further articles, including one which reported the total number of emails received by the council was 67. The Herald on Sunday did not point out it had previously reported there had been hundreds.
One such article published on March 18 quoted Mr Potter as saying there had been a “hysterical response from some La Leche members.”
In its complaint, the League said some of the coverage in the Herald on Sunday and other items in its sister Herald publications concerned the real issue of whether images of bottle-feeding undermined efforts to promote breast-feeding. But much of the coverage gave the erroneous impression the League had criticised Weepu and his parenting, which provoked great outcry.
The public’s impression of the League’s role in the HSC’s editing decision and of the League’s beliefs and practices about broader issues were very inaccurate.
The League said it had been asked to comment on the shot of Weepu bottle-feeding by the HSC and recommended it be removed. Ms Stanton had based that view on the issue of inconsistent health messages.
A subsequent email from a HSC representative was taken to indicate the campaign had been finalised and would not take into account Ms Stanton’s concerns.
Subsequently a co-ordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service, whom Ms Stanton had consulted while considering a response to the HSC, had circulated a message suggesting recipients write to the HSC suggesting removal of the clip, and that message had been forwarded to other groups. The co-ordinator did not represent the League, however.
Some 67 emails had been sent to the HSC, and a subsequent email from Mr Potter saying the council had decided to re-edit the advertisement had been very critical of some La Leche members.
The subsequent publicity had been damaging to the League’s image. The organisation had been criticised for things it had not said and did not believe.
In various items, the emails to the HSC had been inaccurately and negatively characterised as furious, vitriolic, intimidating, shouting and hysterical but the eight emails released publicly by the council showed this was not the case. (Official Information Act requests for the remaining emails have been made.) The criticism of the proposed advertisement was never disrespectful or impolite.
Of those released, none of the emails was identified as being from a representative or member of the League.
The League had also been characterised as attacking Weepu’s parenting and a column by Paul Little on February 12 had been headed Breast-feeding zealots lose the plot.
The League had never judged Weepu’s parenting. It had encouraged the council to replace the bottle shot with footage of cuddling, holding, bathing or playing with his baby.
The League did not dispute parents’ right to bottle-feed or women’s ability to make choices during labour or delivery, and it acknowledged there were situations where bottle-feeding and infant formula should and would be used.
Disapproving of the bottle-feeding shot was not the same as disapproving of bottle-feeding.
It had not launched the email campaign and it was not a “breast-feeding lobbyist” as it had been described. Its primary focus was on helping mothers who wished to breast-feed to do so by providing information and support.
The League also said that challenging the clip in an advertisement and recommending it be edited out did not constitute censorship. The point of suggesting the commercial be re-edited was not to prevent people from knowing that Weepu bottle-fed his child but to aid normalising breast-feeding by not showing bottle-feeding.
The complaint detailed what it said were other examples of misrepresentation of the League’s position in articles, letters, columns and the Herald’s Facebook page.
Bryce Johns, editor of the Herald on Sunday, responded to the Press Council that the League could not dissociate itself from the email campaign because the co-ordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service was linked to the La Leche League on its website and her letter mentioned Ms Stanton’s initial involvement with the council over the advertisement.
He believed the initial news story was accurate and measured and included comments from the League, the College of Midwives and the Health Sponsorship Council.
The editor also argued that the heading’s use of the word “ban” was correct because it stopped the use of the image. “Our information is that the player was told by the production company that the image of him feeding his child by bottle was not acceptable and would no longer be used. We did not suggest LLL had warned Weepu directly or indirectly.”
The newspaper in breaking the story had not suggested the objection to the commercial was “vitriolic.” It had used the description, “furious,” which was justified.
The editor acknowledged that the news story erred in referring to hundreds of emails but that was corrected on March 18 when the actual number, 67, became available.
On February 12, the paper had reported many of the emails were “vitriolically worded” and that may have been the wrong word to use. However, neither the paper nor the League had yet seen the rest of the emails.
The use of the word “hysterical” was justified in the March 18 article because it had been used by the Health Sponsorship Council’s director in an email to the League.
The editor also said that one of the League’s statements in its complaint “summed up the difficulty in answering its grievances. It says ‘Disapproving of use of the bottle shot in a public health TVC is not the same thing as disapproving of bottle-feeding, or trying to remove parents’ choice to bottle-feed.’ But we argue, then and now, that it is the same as disapproving of bottle feeding and was logically taken that way by all who learned of it.”
The League complained about articles in not just the Herald on Sunday but also the daily New Zealand Herald. The editor-in-chief, Tim Murphy, asked that the complaints be considered separately against the individual newspapers as they were run by separate staffs as separate operations.
A difficulty in the consideration of this case was the wide-ranging nature of the complaint. The League drew in supportive references from outside media sources as justification for its beliefs.
The Press Council has to base its deliberations on what was actually reported. The reactions of readers to articles or comments made as a consequence of a publication may be worthy of note, particularly if inaccurate reporting leads to an adverse reader response, but deliberation about a complaint has to centre on what was actually said.
The Herald on Sunday broke the story about the Weepu advertisement and the first article was a reasonable account of what had transpired. There were some small variations in detail but the article was not inaccurate.
The League complained that Ms Stanton had been placed at disadvantage by the question about what was “wrong” with a picture of Weepu cuddling his baby but she was given the opportunity to respond and she could have said then what she was to say later.
The front page skybox mentioned the word “ban” and said Weepu had been “warned that breast is best.” The heading over the story also used the word, and it was mentioned in a latter article.
Ban usually means forbidden and that is too strong a meaning for what transpired. Nor is there a strong case for saying that Piri Weepu had been “warned that breast is best.” The editor’s reference to what the production company might have discussed with Weepu about what transpired is not a convincing case that the All Black was “warned.”
It seems clear the email campaign – and it could be described as such - to get the clip removed was successful but that does not justify the use of “ban” when the decision was made by the HSC which acknowledged it had a duty to ensure health messages did not become confused.
Neither does the Council believe that the use of the word censorship is warranted. The League made a suggestion, the HSC considered the suggestion and removed the image from its own advertisement. This is not censorship.
The Press Council believes the newspaper’s editorials come within the range of fair comment, as do the subsequent columns. The column by Paul Little was tough but he also included reference to his conflict of interest and readers could judge for themselves.
The League denies it instigated the email campaign to the Health Sponsorship Council and that the newspaper was mistaken in reporting that. Neverthless, the co-ordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service did write the letter that started the campaign and she did so after discussing the matter with Ms Stanton. Further, her name is on the league’s website and the Press Council believes the newspaper was entitled to associate her as a League representative.
The issue of how many people responded to the campaign was resolved with the newspaper reporting the 67 emails received. The fact that it has previously reported there had been “hundreds” might have been mentioned in the subsequent article for clarity but it was more important that the correct figure was published.
A central plank of the complaint is that the League’s position on bottle-feeding was misrepresented by the Herald on Sunday.
The editor says the newspaper was forwarded a copy of the open letter seeking support for the email campaign to the HSC and that led to the February 5 article.
He also said in his response to the Press Council that the League’s disapproval of a bottle-feeding shot in a commercial is the same as disapproving of bottle feeding “and was logically taken that way by all who learned of it.”
That belief is, however, suspect. The co-ordinator’s open letter, which the editor says the paper had seen, makes it clear that was not her intention. She states: “This is not about being unsupportive of bottle-feeding parents as infant health advocates and breast-feeding supporters are committed to supporting all parents.”
Given what the Herald on Sunday should have known about the League and the co-ordinator’s position, it was therefore extreme to say in the February 12 article when referring to the image removed: “For the La Leche League, it will confirm all its worst fears. It shows a gorgeous, healthy embrace of a loving dad. To La Leche, this image glorifies bottle-feeding.”
The unattributed comments were part of what appears to be a justifiable feature article, but mixing comment with fact without giving the League a chance to respond at that time was unfair.
The complaint about the page one heading on February 5 is upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy.
The February 12 article mixed comment and fact and was unfair in that it misrepresented the league’s position.
Complaints about the other articles including columns, editorials and letters are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.