MICHAEL THORMAN AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2252

Council Meeting: MAY 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Michael Thorman, representing In2Herbs Ltd, claims the Herald on Sunday failed to comply with Principle 1 (Accuracy Fairness and Balance) and Principle 8 (Subterfuge) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in reporting as to a herb-based product distributed by In2Herbs.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.

Background
On 22 January 2012 the Herald on Sunday ran a story titled “Latest herbal high warnings”. The story opened with the paragraph;

“An ingredient in a new herbal product that experts suspect may be smoked in New Zealand has been shown to cause tumours in rats and liver failure, says a toxicologist”

The story went on to refer to a new herbal product, called “Sky” and “which looked like cannabis”, having become available in Auckland. The article claimed the product’s active ingredient was “tussilago farfara, or coltsfoot”. The article referred to synthetic cannabis products such as “Kronic” as having been recently banned. New “herbal high” products were now reaching the market instead. The Herald on Sunday quoted a National Poisons Centre spokesperson as saying that “coltsfoot was toxic if used over a prolonged period and it had been banned overseas”. The spokesperson was also quoted as saying “I strongly advise people do not smoke this product – it contains alkaloids which can lead to liver damage”.

The article then referred to Sky product packaging notes which made it clear the product is intended for “potpourri or aromatherapy”. The notes warned “against human consumption”. The article quoted Mr Thorman as saying “he did not advocate people smoked the product but said he knew people who did”. Mr Thorman was quoted as saying there was nothing dangerous about the product he sold but admitted it had not been tested in New Zealand.

The Complaint
Michael Thorman claims the Herald on Sunday article is inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. Mr Thorman says the article should not have linked the Sky product, which was clearly labeled as being “not for human consumption”, with the controversy over the Kronic and similar commodities. This comparison was misleading.

Mr Thorman also claimed the article to have wrongly described the coltsfoot element as being toxic or hazardous. Mr Thorman refers to coltsfoot as being an ancient herbal remedy.

Mr Thorman also says while the Sky product has not been tested in New Zealand the United States manufacturer “knows the laws and standards they have to meet here”. Further the product had been imported into New Zealand with appropriate Customs declarations. It would not have been allowed in had it been illegal.

Essentially Mr Thorman says the Sky product is safe when used correctly. The Herald on Sunday was wrong to have referred to the product in the context it did.

Mr Thorman also claims his response to the proposed story was obtained by subterfuge, the Herald on Sunday reporter not having identified herself when she called him for comment.

The Response
Herald on Sunday responds by saying the article referred to topical public interest and safety issues. While the Sky product was undoubtedly labeled as not being for human consumption it was apparently being distributed by at least one retailer as a “trial of a new herbal high”.

Research indicated products incorporating coltsfoot were smoked around the world. There were still concerns as to the toxicity of coltsfoot despite Mr Thorman’s reference to “new” research showing the particular coltsfoot variant used in the Sky product being safe. The Herald on Sunday offered to publish a letter from Mr Thorman substantiating his claim the coltsfoot variant was not harmful. This offer was not accepted.

Herald on Sunday maintains its article was fair, accurate and balanced

Herald on Sunday denies its reporter failed to identify herself when she called Mr Thorman for comment. The newspaper says the reporter did identify herself. Further the matters to be covered in the article were not of a kind as to justify subterfuge.

The Decision
The Council does not agree with Mr Thorman in relation to his claim the article is not accurate, balanced or fair.

The story can be divided into two parts. The first section deals with product safety issues, issues which are currently attracting public attention. The article refers to the Sky product as containing an element in the form of coltsfoot which may be potentially harmful should the product be smoked. The second part refers though to the Sky product as being marketed as potpourri or aromatherapy with warnings against human consumption. The second section refers to Mr Thorman himself as advocating that people not smoke the product. If Mr Thorman is concerned the article casts improper aspersions on the product or his company then this concern is unfounded. The article does not claim or imply the product is harmful if used as recommended.

The Council is unable to determine whether the Herald on Sunday obtained Mr Thorman’s remarks by subterfuge, and anyway the issue is of no materiality to the complaint. The article accurately reported Mr Thorman’s sentiments. In2Herbs and Mr Thorman never recommended the product be smoked. They ensured the Sky product was distributed with appropriate written health warnings. This aspect was emphasised in the article. In deciding not to deal with the subterfuge claim the Council is not suggesting either Mr Thorman or the Herald on Sunday’s reporter acted improperly in any way.

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, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.