Case Number: 795

Council Meeting: August 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Evening Post

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Mr. Nicky Hager against the Evening Post made on the grounds that the newspaper in a recent article published on 19 February 2000 described him as an " activist". The article contained Mr Hager's reported comments on a statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton that he had reached agreement with the Prime Minister Helen Clark to review Government's overseeing of the Security Intelligence Service. The article was under the headline "SIS scrutiny waste of time without data, critics say". The description to which Mr Hager takes exception was contained in this sentence: "Peace activist Nicky Hager said a full parliamentary committee would be good news, as long as it improved access to information about the SIS".

It is important to note the constraints on the complaint made by Mr. Hager himself.
"I want to make clear at the start that I am not complaining about the particular journalist or sub-editors concerned. I hope that the Press Council, by considering this example, will consider and make a judgement about an issue that arises in many, many other articles too. The principle at stake is accuracy, fairness and balance." The complaint has nothing to do with the efficacy, or otherwise, of the SIS. By the above sentences (and others) Mr Hager appears to treat the label of activist as representative of other objectionable labels used by newspapers, and he does provide additional examples. His main point is that this type of labelling is systemic in the newspaper industry and that all those asked for comment are not treated fairly and equally.

Mr Hager nominates the principle at stake as "accuracy, fairness and balance." Those words are from the Council's Statement of Principles - No.1 Accuracy. For the reasons set out hereafter the Council does not consider the use of the description activist contravenes the Principles of the Council.

Mr Hager, it would appear, had been approached by a reporter who in the course of the interview had asked him how he wished to be described and he replied "intelligence researcher", but instead was referred to as an activist. In his complaint he said this happens regularly to him " …whether I have written a book or done some major research or I am debating an issue publicly. In addition to the issue of accuracy of the term (it is a decade or more since I could be described as a peace activist), I believe that the term 'activist' was applied in this case and is applied in many other cases in a (perhaps unconsciously) selective and depreciating manner."

On a matter of principle the Council should, and does say, it is not part of its mandate to tell the print media how to use language unless the particular use has some very obvious objectionable feature. None such is found in this complaint.

The Council does not accept the premise on which the complaint is based that even on a loose definition of accuracy the newspaper was inaccurate to choose to use a past description of Mr Hager's activities. It would appear Mr Hager is complaining about timeliness as the inaccurate feature as he does concede it was once a true description of his activities. Many people whose comments are reported in the course of a news article might prefer a description of their qualifications other than that actually published. The newspaper defends its use of the term activist on the grounds that given the complainant's background the description would be more easily understood by its readers. Moreover the precise issue of the comment on the intelligence service does accurately state Mr Hager's qualifications to make the comments he did, and which were well reported.

A further aspect of his complaint is that critics generally are often referred to as activists "…which certainly does not have connotations of being authoritative and often has pejorative connotations." Mr Hager's point is that it is the critics who are the activists, and the supporters who are the commentators or analysts. Again the Council does not accept that activist invariably carries with it perjorative overtones, although it can do that. The Council notes that the latest published Volume 4 of The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography 1921-1940 lists in the Categories Index under the heading Reform and Protest - "Political activist" and names 19 persons as warranting that appellation for that period. Such a description was not contained in the prior Volume 3 for 1901-1920. That is also an example of prestigious publications, such as the DNZB, keeping abreast of social and language change.

The Council does not detect any unfairness or lack of balance in the use of the description activist.

The complaint is not upheld.