M LAURENCE WITHY AGAINST VIBRANT HUTT

Case Number: 2095

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2009

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Vibrant Hutt

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by M. Laurence Withy of Lowry Bay against the magazine Vibrant Hutt concerning a series of columns written by Sir Robert Jones.
Mr Withy is a prolific contributor of letters to The Dominion Post. The frequency of his letters, either published or acknowledged in the newspaper, has been noticed by Sir Robert who late last year began keeping count of them.
Sir Robert is well known in New Zealand for a cruel sense of humour that can be wickedly amusing. He has written columns for several newspapers over the years. Vibrant Hutt, in which he currently appears, is a bi-monthly published from a Stokes Valley address. Six issues have been distributed in the Hutt Valley during the past year.
Mr Withy has had the misfortune to become a continuing figure of fun for the columnist who considers him a “crashing bore”, writing letters that “are always sneering at anyone who has accomplished something, been generous or demonstrated enjoyment in everyday pursuits.” As many as five of the columns so far have carried lengthy conjecture on Mr Withy's motives, capabilities, home life and character, beginning with the “M.” in his name.
Mr Withy has not helped himself by responding. After the first column he wrote to Sir Robert, which brought a stronger onslaught in the next, and the next. Given a right of reply in Vibrant Hutt, Mr Withy described himself as a retired chartered engineer in naval architectural science and listed his maritime concerns. That inspired another withering column. Mr Withy then complained to the Press Council.

The Complaint
Mr Withy alleges that five of the six issues of Vibrant Hutt published to the date of the complaint (August 24) contained references to him that breach four principles upheld by the Council, namely accuracy, privacy, the avoidance of gratuitous discrimination, and the need to distinguish comment from fact.
By way of example he cites a reference to “repressed homosexuality” and statements such as, “while his wife goes out to work” and “given he is unemployed”, which he complains are not only derogatory and offensive but inaccurate.
He seeks a formal apology from the editor of Vibrant Hutt or Sir Robert Jones to be published prominently in Vibrant Hutt.
The Council has no power to make such an order, it can only endorse a complaint, or not, in the knowledge that responsible newspapers recognise an obligation to publish rulings against them.


The Editor's Response:
Vibrant Hutt's editor, Leigh Sutton, has chosen to make no response to Mr Withy's complaint to the Council. But in reply to his complaint to her she told him that as a persistent writer of often critical letters to the media he had to accept criticism “for this curious behaviour”.
It has been noted that she gave him a right of reply after the third column.

The Decision:
Mr Withy has framed his complaint under Press Council principles that possibly should not be strictly applied to a column of this nature. Much of its humour lies in its departure from the usual standards of accuracy, privacy, decency and fair comment.
In its treatment of Mr Withy the column is not pretending to be factually accurate. Its references to the complainant's personal characteristics are mostly unsubstantiated assumptions, not to say prejudice.
Likewise, in its invasion of privacy: the principle states that everyone is entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information unless the personal information is a matter of public record or of obvious significant public interest. But the columns are not pretending to expose Mr Withy's actual life. They are a work mostly of imagination.
The complaint also cites the principle that gratuitous emphasis should not be placed on age, gender, sexual orientation and mental disability. But the columns’ references are on the level of “crank”, “silly old bugger”, “acting like a lunatic”, which do not seem serious enough to breach a principle intended to protect groups vulnerable to discrimination.
Nor do we find the columns have confused comment with fact. The references to Mr Withy are overwhelmingly in the realm of comment. They are flights of conjecture and caricature which are plainly not intended to be taken literally and we doubt that any sensible reader, no matter how much in accord with the columnist's view, would mistake his imagined material for fact.
It needs to be noted that the columns repeat one damaging allegation against Mr Withy that Sir Robert makes clear he believes to be true. It is mentioned here to reinforce the finding that the columnist can, and has in this instance, clearly distinguished alleged fact from opinion.
But if breaches of the principles can be excused in this style of humour the Council has a larger concern.
To indulge in sustained bullying of a named individual, not once or even twice but in five consecutive columns, for the offence of writing to newspapers, is of course the joke. Mr Withy can be forgiven for not appreciating it.
The humour has a malicious tone and its repeated personal abuse appears to have taken on the dimensions of a vendetta. Editors do not normally allow their columns to become a platform for this sort of thing.
The Council therefore upholds the complaint, on grounds of unfairness, and urges the editor of Vibrant Hutt to exercise some restraint.
The Council is also conscious that its concerns could provide further grist for the column's mill. If so, it would be an opportunity to demonstrate that the best response to this sort of humour is to ignore it.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.