MICHAEL BAHJEJIAN AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2329

Council Meeting: JUNE 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Michael Bahjejian objected to an opinion piece "Truth be told bigots can be terrible liars", published in the Waikato Times on April 1 2013. The complaint is not upheld.

Mr Bahjejian claimed that the newspaper breached Press Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and Principle 6 (discrimination and diversity).

Background
The opinion piece by Joshua Drummond was spurred by the debate surrounding proposals to legalise gay marriage in New Zealand, and opposition to it - particularly from people with a religious background. Drummond, who said he did not believe in God, made a number of inflammatory statements about the Bible, Family First and the Christian Right lobby. Amongst other things, he claimed the Christian Right was lying, by trying to use science to back its arguments "that gay couples are inferior parents."

Opposing the adoption of children by gay parents showed that "Family First and their ilk seem to want the worst for these families."

It was important for a functioning society that much of the Old Testament be ignored as it was no longer considered infallible or relevant. He noted that the "dwindling adherents of ancient brute philosophy are turning desperately to a key instrument of their undoing – science – and perverting it utterly."

Opponents of gay marriage had claimed science was on their side, that gay marriage would hurt children, and that statistics backed these claims. "To deal with the claims in order: a lie, a damned lie, and statistics... don't back them up" the columnist said.

The Complaint
Mr Bahjejian complained that the opinion piece failed to demonstrate accuracy, fairness and balance in vilifying the Bible, and that it falsely accused Family First and its supporters of being ignorant, unscientific and of lying. The opinion piece's comments that Bible believers were "adherents of ancient brute philosophy" was no less than hate speech and his description of Christianity grossly inaccurate and unfair.

The columnist had made wrong and highly derogatory statements about the Bible and those who believed in "an infallible Bronze age book". He had discriminated against people who put their trust in such an ancient book.

His statements about Family First with regard to social science were enough to accuse Family First and its supporters "of being liars and unscientific". The claim lacked fairness and accuracy.

As far as Principle 6 was concerned, the columnist's comments were vulgar and discriminatory. It was also discriminatory to associate Family First with some sort of cult that overused lobbying to push an idea that "a particular version of God tells you it's bad". Family First wanted to protect and promote family values, for the benefit of society generally. "Accusing them of being liars is ... an attack on diversity of thoughts and opinion."

Newspaper's Response
Deputy editor Geoff Taylor rejected the complaint on the grounds that the Drummond piece was an opinion column "and he has a every right to express his views on an issue".

Complaints about balance were irrelevant as this was an opinion piece, not a news story. Drummond did not have an obligation to provide balance.

Some of the language was "robust" and Drummond had strong views. But his comments fell a long way short of "hate speech".

Drummond had essentially stated that the Bible had plenty of good content for religious people but it should not all be taken literally and unquestioningly. He also believed that fundamentalists were trying to make scientific claims to back their arguments against gay marriage, and he had tried to address those arguments.

He also tried to address arguments that gay parents were inferior to others.

Mr Bahjejian had different views "but I don't believe he [Drummond] has breached any principles of accuracy, fairness and balance".

Press Council View
The Drummond column was clearly identifiable as an opinion piece, and columnists are entitled to strong and frequently controversial views. Principle 4 says "a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such." This was.

Mr Bahjejian's complaint cited Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) yet this relates principally to news stories.

The Press Council does not believe Principle 1 applies in this case, nor have the standards of Principle 6 been breached, since this was clearly an opinion column. The column also falls short of being "hate speech", despite Mr Bahjejian's assertion. The overriding fact is that this was an opinion piece, on a page clearly labelled as such. The columnist was entitled to express his views in the controversial manner he chose. The complaint is not upheld.

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