LABOUR PARTY AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2194

Council Meeting: JULY 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Labour Party has complained about an article appearing in the Herald on Sunday on April 17, 2011.
The complaint is not upheld.
The Article
The article, which appeared on page 6 of the publication, was headed “Red fern idea finds fertile ground". The first paragraph read:
A SUGGESTION the All Blacks should wear a red fern for the Rugby World Cup was quickly dismissed – but that hasn’t stopped the Labour Party stealing the idea for election year.
The article referred to a proposal, which had been abandoned, that the All Blacks wear a red fern in support of the quake hit Christchurch, it said:
Labour leader Phil Goff had supported the red fern proposal – and now his party has adopted it for its new logo.
The article referred to comments by various people on the new Labour logo and the development of it. A co-owner of the advertising company which made the logo was quoted as saying “it took six to nine months to finalise the design”.
On April 24, 2011, on page 21 of its publication, the Herald on Sunday under the heading of Clarifications” stated:
Last week we said in the introduction of a story that the Labour Party had stolen the All Blacks’ idea of a red fern for its new logo. This intro was tongue-in-cheek and not intended to suggest intellectual property theft by the party. The logo revamp was a long-term project that pre-dated the All Black concept.
The Complaint
The complaint is that the article, which was not an opinion piece, was inaccurate and unfair. This was because the Labour Party had been developing the red fern idea prior to the suggestion that the All Blacks wear a red fern. Prior to publishing the article, the reporter had approached two members of the Labour Party and had been told that the red fern logo had been under development for six to nine months, that it had been used on Labour’s website since February/March (the Botany by election) and it had been used in press releases to media organisations since March 8, 2011.
The complaint is that the article was factually incorrect, inaccurate and unfair. It refers to a contact which Francesca Mold, Labour’s Chief Press Secretary, had had with Jonathan Milne, deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday. There was subsequent email traffic between Ms Mold, Mr Milne and the editor of the Herald on Sunday. In the email exchange, the Herald on Sunday agreed to print a clarification. Ms Mold did not agree with the terms of the clarification.
The Newspaper’s Response
In a lengthy response, the Herald on Sunday said that the reference to “stealing the idea” from the All Blacks was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. This was demonstrated by the very high hyperbole in the term “stealing”, by the brevity of the article, and the light-hearted metaphorical headline of the nature reserved by the paper for “bites” and human interest stories.
The editor of the Herald on Sunday, in an email to Ms Mold after she had complained to the newspaper, agreed that the story was unfortunate and perhaps gave a wrong impression which was clarified in the story which clearly stated that the design on the logo took six to nine months. After claiming that a reasonable reader would see the introduction as being tongue-in-cheek, he noted that Ms Mold obviously did not share the view and he was therefore happy to have the matter clarified the following weekend.
Discussion
The Council does not share the editor’s view that a reasonable reader would see the comment as tongue-in-cheek. The introduction clearly stated that the Labour Party had stolen the idea for election year. By implication, the heading reinforces this view. The fact that there was a reference to the six to nine months period of design does not alter that impression, but it does confuse the issue. The comment would not, in the Council’s view, lead many reasonable readers to accept the allegation in the introduction as being tongue-in-cheek.
The article, which was a factual article and not an opinion piece, was inaccurate and unfair. The newspaper would have known the statement was incorrect at the time it was published. If it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek this was not obvious. There has been a breach of the Council’s principles.
However, the issue in this case is whether the clarification subsequently published by the Herald on Sunday was a sufficient response. Unless the error is grievous, a publication’s prompt acknowledgment of the error and a willingness to correct it is usually sufficient to escape an uphold decision by this Council. If the newspaper had published a correction which satisfied the Labour Party, it is unlikely that there would have been a complaint to this Council.
The complainant believes that it is unfair for publications to make claims in prominent news stories that they later admit are not true or fair, yet the resulting “clarification” is published a week later in a couple of sentences buried in the back of the paper where no-one sees it. There is substance in this point. What was required here was a correction rather than a clarification. Further, the correction is to be given fair publication. However, as the Herald on Sunday is a weekly newspaper, it can not be criticised for publishing the correction a week later, as that was its next publication.
There was an exchange of emails between the complainant and the newspaper over the terms of the clarification. The editor made an amendment to his proposed clarification as a result of this exchange. The amendment did not satisfy the complainant as it wished the newspaper to acknowledge that it had been told by two spokesmen for the Labour Party that the logo had been in use since the Botany by-election and in development for more than six months as a brand. It wanted included a statement of regret and an apology. Ms Mold did advise the editor that she was not happy with the clarification but it was a waste of her and his time to debate it further.
A publication, when it has made an error, should promptly correct and do so in terms that acknowledge the error. While it may be suggested that it is merely semantics, there is a difference between “correction” and “clarification”. This article called for a correction, not a clarification. However, that said, the contents of the clarification do sufficiently correct the inaccuracy in the original article. The Labour Party may have wanted stronger wording but, in the Council’s view, the content was sufficient, albeit that it did no explicitly acknowledge that the fault lay with the newspaper.
The issues therefore are whether the placing of the clarification near the end of the publication and the use of the word “clarification” rather than “correction” mean that the correction was not adequate. In the Council’s view, the Herald on Sunday would be wise to rename its clarifications column a corrections column and to place it nearer the beginning of the newspaper. If it does not do so there will be cases where a clarification will be held not to be a sufficient correction.
This is a borderline case, where a minority of the Council was of the view that the clarification was not an adequate correction. However the view of the majority of the Council is that while it would have been preferable for the “clarification” to have been headed “correction” and placed in a more prominent position in the newspaper, the Council’s view is that the clarification was adequate.
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.