Case Number: 932

Council Meeting: JUNE 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the New Zealand Timber Industry Federation (hereafter the NZTIF) against The Dominion Post about a series of articles on the possible adverse effects of timber treated by the method known as chromated copper arsenate - CCA - which is a pesticide used to preserve wood for use out of doors. The treatment contains arsenic that is a poison, and a recognised carcinogenic that can cause deleterious health effects and affect the environment.

The series of articles began with one in the Saturday edition of the newspaper on 9 November 2002 and continued into the New Year 2003. There were in all about 24 articles most of which were by-lined to a journalist, Chris Mirams. Obviously the newspaper had invested resources into the story and quite tenaciously held to its mission, as it saw it, of responsible investigative journalism.

The main point made by the newspaper in the first article, and in several that followed, is that tanalised timber (i.e. that treated with CCA) is a danger to the health to those who come into contact with it. The treatment necessarily involves arsenic that is a known carcinogenic. Tanalisation is for timber used out of doors because the treatment provides it with protection against deterioration from exposure to soil and the weather. The timber is used extensively in school playground equipment throughout New Zealand, and by the public in other building and recreational uses. The Dominion Post commissioned an independent study of playgrounds in the Wellington area and published its findings using language and headlines that the complainant characterised as sensational, unbalanced and deceptive. The study reported levels of arsenic leached into the soil in the playgrounds tested as between two and 10 times above government guidelines. The sample of three playgrounds investigated is too small for confident statistical extrapolation.

There can be little doubt that the newspaper has been conducting a campaign against the use of tanalised timber and as part of that campaign directly and indirectly criticising the government for not being more proactive on this public health issue. It is also critical of government and local authorities for not acting to ban the sale of tanalised timber, or at least to ensure the public is made aware of the dangers of its use at the point of sale.

An important part of the argument advanced by the newspaper is that governments in the United States, (technically a withdrawal not a ban, says the complainant), Canada, Sweden, Japan (the European Union is considering a report from scientists on the subject) have already taken steps to ban the sale of tanalised timber. In the US this followed an extensive public campaign to prohibit its sale which apparently was successful. It is fair to say that the newspaper did not ignore entirely the arguments of the industry that there is still scientific controversy over the health risks attendant on the use of this treated timber, but these aspects were not given prominence.

A complaint was laid with the Press Council by NZTIF on the grounds that the material published in The Dominion Post had breached the Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance (Principle 1 of the Statement of Principles). The complaint was very full and supplied to the Press Council was a quite extensive file of papers in support of the complaint which was responded to in kind by the newspaper. The complainant’s own summary of its case was that The Dominion Post had set out on a preconceived project to destroy the reputation of treated timber and in doing so had seriously breached the principles established by the Press Council. The Dominion Post had offered the NZTIF publication of a 1000 word reply but stipulated it had to be supplied within 3 working days. In an issue as complex as this NZTIF might have had some justification in not being able to meet the deadline.

At this point it is appropriate to make observations about the position of the Press Council in disposing of a complaint such as this which the Council believes has applicability to this complaint. Reference has already been made to the amount of material that has been supplied by both sides in this complaint. Much of the material concerns disputes by well-qualified experts on the health issues. The Council faced a complaint against a magazine that was highly critical of immunisation and in the Council adjudication [Immunisation Advisory Centre against Investigate Magazine Case No. 847 2001] the following was said:

“This is clearly not a situation in which the Press Council can apply any simple test to determine the accuracy and balance of the claims and allegations made in the particular articles against which IMAC complains. The Council is not constituted or resourced to pursue enquiries that might enable it to adjudicate on the complex issues, even if that were a feasible task in the short term. There are other sound reasons why it should not make an adjudication founded on accuracy and balance. These are very large public issues under almost permanent surveillance and adjustment, often directly affected by a robust confrontation and exchange of views by the protagonists to the debate.”

One of the Council's Principles states:

7. Advocacy
A publication is entitled to adopt a forthright stance and advocate a position on any issue.

There can be no question but that The Dominion Post on tanalised timber did adopt a forthright stance in taking up the advocacy for abolition of the sale of tanalised timber in New Zealand. In doing so the headlines were forceful and perhaps some would say sensational (that is the view of the complainant) and these are some examples: “Poisoned playgrounds”; “Public wakes to preservative’s dangers”; “Timber, cancer link backed”; “Rotten leadership fuels timber debacle” (headline to the leader of 28 November 2002); and “Code of practice abused, say officers”; “The case for arsenic”. The majority of the Council (see below for dissent on the last headline) acknowledges these are forthright headlines but do not contravene Principle 10 on Headlines in that they “accurately convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover.’ Nevertheless the Council observes that a newspaper on a mission to investigate and remedy a perceived condition of possible danger must still maintain the highest standards of journalism.

Two members, Messrs Johnston and McLean, would have gone further and upheld the specific complaint made about the headline “Case for arsenic”.
In their view, the headline both contravened Principle 10 and was unfair in conveying the derogatory implication that the following article was a general endorsement of arsenic. They therefore dissent from the Council’s decision in respect of this particular item.

The complainant clearly felt aggrieved at the adversarial style of investigative journalism adopted by the newspaper. The complainant took up the position of a victim of an unfair and unbalanced attack on an industry that in this area of treated timber had operated for many years practically without challenge. Underlying the complaint is a quite large commercial interest that the NZTIF was defending and the Council appreciates that is part of its mission.

The Council is aware that the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) released a report on 1 May 2003 that seemed to suggest research to date was inconclusive on health risks to children. Nevertheless ERMA set out a plan for future use of CCA treated timber that supported further research together with strengthening of conditions of use. Each party has had the opportunity to comment on this latest development but the Council does not believe the position of the complaint is materially changed by it.

In the Council’s view The Dominion Post had every right to present a hard hitting challenge to the industry and governmental agencies for not taking more positive steps in regard to tanalised timber on the grounds of health risks and effect on the environment. These views are amply supported by the actions on the same issues from overseas countries.

The Council repeats that it takes no stand itself on the merits of the argument but does take a firm stand on the issue that a newspaper is perfectly entitled to air such a problem and open it up for debate in the public interest.

The complaint is not upheld.

Ms Suzanne Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.