Case Number: 788

Council Meeting: July 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

A complaint about a Sandra Coney column published in the Sunday Star-Times on 9 April has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Michael Edgar complained the column, which was on abortion, wrongly stated that abortion counselling suggested by Bishop Dunn of Auckland would consist of "guilt tripping women, showing them over-sized blow-ups of foetuses or gory ones ostensibly aborted."

He wrote a letter, which was not for publication to the editor saying his inquiries revealed Ms Coney's assertion was untrue and he wanted the paper to print a correction. When the paper refused, Mr Edgar complained to the Press Council.

In his submissions to the Press Council Mr Edgar said Ms Coney's assertion had been printed as fact, not opinion. A quick check with Bishop Dunn's office had confirmed the assertion was untrue and the Sunday Star-Times had a duty to correct it.

Suzanne Chetwin, editor of the paper replied that Ms Coney had been stating her opinion. The column had been written in response to a series of opinions Bishop Dunn had put forward on abortion, including suggesting offering money to women to choose to have a baby and establishing a counselling service for women considering abortion. Ms Coney had extensive experience in abortion counselling and her comment was based on her knowledge of the sort of counselling offered by groups opposed to abortion. The assertion had not been put in quotation marks so did not pretend to represent what Bishop Dunn may have said.

Mr Edgar repeated his argument that the assertion was printed as fact, not opinion, and therefore deserved to be corrected.

The difference between the complainant and the paper comes down to their approach to the column. In Mr Edgar's correspondence he refers to it as an article when it is clearly an identified column representing the opinion of the writer.

Reading the column in its entirety it is clear it is an opinion piece. While columnists must still take care with facts, the Council in this case believes the sentence complained of represents the opinion of Ms Coney, particularly when taken in context of the entirety of the column.

Bishop Dunn has made no complaint about the column. As well, Mr Edgar could have challenged the truth or otherwise of Ms Coney's comments by allowing his letter to be published.

The complaint is not upheld.