Case Number: 898

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Bias

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Patrick McEntee, of Hastings, concerning four Hawke’s Bay Today editorials in May and June 2002 dealing with the secondary teachers’ pay dispute. He saw them as part of “a prolonged campaign by this paper to belittle teachers and to portray them as dishonourable and unworthy of public support”. Mr McEntee appeared before the Council in support of his views.

At the core of the complaint is Mr McEntee’s strong reaction to the editorials’ remarks about teachers’ “wildcat strikes”, and about their using “old-fashioned union tactics to bully an employer”. He considered the paper’s dismissing of the teachers’ professional reasons for strike action and its assertion that “the strikes are about self-interest” as evidence of its failure to treat the dispute in a fair and balanced way. The Press Council’s Principle 1 had thereby been infringed.

The complainant believed the newspaper had been engaged in a malicious campaign to vilify secondary teachers. It had pilloried and persecuted them. Its vehement attack was marked by spitefulness. One of the editorials was the most rabid outpouring of personal prejudice he had ever read.

The editor acknowledged that he had forthrightly criticised the teachers’ union and its methods, but rejected the complainant’s description of the editorials. He said that the paper’s treatment in its news columns of secondary teachers and their industrial dispute had been demonstrably unpartisan. Mr McEntee, in his response to the editor’s remarks, stated that he had not questioned the balance of the news reports. In his oral submission Mr McEntee emphasised the damage to teachers’ morale that had resulted from the editorials’ anti-teacher stance.

The Press Council thinks it important to note that these editorials appeared in the context of one of the most highly-publicised and most clearly-defined industrial disputes New Zealand has seen for many years. In print and other media the issues were set before the public through the statements by the secondary teachers’ union (PPTA), the Minister of Education, and the School Trustees Association, and through coverage of industrial action by teachers, and of demonstrations by students. The professional issues to which the complainant attaches great importance (key shortages of teachers, workload grievances, the demands of the new NCEA, etc) were widely canvassed and debated in the media.

Given the extent of the media coverage of the various viewpoints, including Hawke’s Bay Today’s own reporting of the issues, it can be assumed that readers were well equipped to assess the worth of the editorials, and to make up their own minds about the issues. The test of fairness and balance must be applied to a newspaper’s whole handling of such a long-running dispute. Hawke’s Bay Today appears to have met this test satisfactorily in its overall coverage.

Editors are entitled to have strong opinions and to express them vigorously, even if some readers are offended and provoked by what they see as ignorant, wrong-headed or blatantly prejudiced remarks. Many readers might agree with the complainant that the editorials were guilty of “stereotyping teachers and of making unsupported generalisations about them”, but the question that has to be asked is this: were the editorials so extreme in substance or tone as to go beyond what is acceptable as opinion?

The Press Council does not think that the complainant’s description of the editorials (cited in the third paragraph above) is borne out by close consideration of their content and language. The criticisms of teachers reported or endorsed in the editorials were not couched in abusive or derisive terms, strong opinions did not become invective. Mr McEntee obviously found the editorials deeply offensive, and the Press Council was left in no doubt that the newspaper had alienated some of its readership. However, the Council considers that a robust society that values freedom of expression must allow for aggressive editorial opinion, provided that adequate coverage is given to contrary views, as happened with this dispute.

The complaint is not upheld.