MIKE BUTLER AGAINST WEL-COM

Case Number: 2378

Council Meeting: MAY 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wel-Com

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Wel-Com is an official newspaper for the Catholic dioceses of Wellington and Palmerston North. Mike Butler of Hastings complains that an article and editorial in the issue of February, 2014, breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, and mixed comment with fact. The complaint is not upheld.



The article to mark Waitangi Day presented a version of history found in a recent report for the Northland iwi, Ngapuhi, which the article described as "a proudly independent nation" at the signing of the Treaty, "whose rangatira had already forged links with other nations".



The report, entitled 'Ngapuhi Speaks', stated that Ngapuhi ships had circumnavigated the world, doing extensive trade not just with Australia but with places as far away as the United States and the United Kingdom. Maori had sent specially chosen travellers to other countries to gather information and share it at seminars when they returned. Problems with lawless Pakeha prompted Ngapuhi to form political alliances to protect their mana and apply tikanga (tribal law). The 1835 Declaration of Independence was one such alliance and the Treaty of 1840 was another. It was, "the culmination of a forward-thinking strategy to enhance the beneficial relationship with the British, and to progress their international interests."



The editorial argued that the Treaty and its history are not widely understood, that the English and Maori versions had different meanings and Ngapuhi leaders had provided evidence that Te Tiriti was a partnership between two nations. Yet Maori were still marginalised. They had been tricked out of their land and despite the best efforts of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear grievances and return land, Maori now led poverty statistics.



The Complaint
Mr Butler complained that the article was a series of biased assertions from a tribal group that is claiming $600 million in compensation for alleged breaches of the Treaty. Wel-Com made no effort to check the material or seek comment from those who take an opposing view. Faulty and biased information was printed in a reputable newspaper that carries the moral authority of the Catholic Church and was distributed to thousands of households who would expect the information to be reliable.



He cited a statement in the editorial, that Maori have been "tricked out of their land", as an inaccuracy.
In his complaint to the editor, he offered a lengthy rebuttal of the article for publication.



The Response
Wel-Com's editor, Cecily McNeill, said she did not respond to Mr Butler before his complaint to the Press Council because she felt he was putting pressure on her to publish his complaint, which would be inappropriate in the diocesan newspaper because of "his negative insinuations about Maori".



Her newspaper's task was to inform and educate Catholic people of the dioceses about issues that "illuminate Catholic Social Teaching in light of the Gospel call to stand with those who are in any way marginalised".



Her editorial statement that Maori had been tricked out of their land was a reference to the privatisation of title to land held collectively. The word "tricked" was supported by the research of Robert Consedine whose book on the Treaty is in its third reprint and who conducts seminars on the subject for corporate and government clients.



The editorial was supported by published statements from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference and other church authorities. The article was in line with the church's official position. Wel-Com was presenting fresh material from the perspective of Maori leaders.



The Decision.
The Treaty of Waitangi and its historical context are subjects of keen and continual debate in New Zealand. The Press Council does not think it necessary for every article on the subject to be balanced by opposing points of view. The article in question made its attitude clear to readers at the outset.



The Council notes the editor's statement that the church's social teaching obliges her newspaper to "stand with those who are in any way marginalised". The newspaper is distributed in parish churches and Catholic schools. Its readers would be well aware of their church's social mission and would have read the article in that light.



The complainant offers no reason to doubt that the article was an accurate reflection of the Ngapuhi Speaks report. The single statement cited as inaccurate is a comment in the editorial that Maori were "tricked" out of their land. Many would argue that proposition is accurate.



Many would also contend the article is fair in the context of a wider debate since it challenged more familiar versions of history.



For that reason, the editor was under no obligation to print Mr Butler's rebuttal though it is regrettable that she did not give him the courtesy of a reply until he brought his complaint to the Council.



The complaint is not upheld on issues of accuracy fairness and balance, nor does the Council find fact and opinion were mixed in a way that would mislead readers. The material appeared in a church newspaper whose readers would have known this newspaper's social purpose and could make allowances for it.



Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.