PETER WARING AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2403

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Unfair Coverage

A complaint by Peter Waring, about a television review in The Dominion Post, has not been upheld by the Press Council.
Background
The review, by veteran columnist Jane Clifton, appeared in the newspaper on July 31 and was sparked by a programme featuring psychologist Nigel Latta. One of a series by the well-known commentator on aspects of New Zealand society, it focused on equality and its relation to the economy. It particularly focused on the gap between rich and poor.
It was the opening episode of Latta's most recent series, which went on to look at issues which have included alcohol, incarceration and the harm of sugar in people's diets.
The Clifton review did not focus exclusively on the opening programme, but criticised the fact that Latta was an "unqualified" person who was using television to tell the public what to do. She said he was effectively telling New Zealanders how to live, how to vote, and what to think. "We need to ask: who made him the oracle?"
She also cited attempts by other commentators, such as Gareth Morgan and Kim Dotcom, to use television to try to influence public opinion.
The Complaint
Mr Waring said Clifton's column failed to focus on the content of the programme but was largely a personal attack on Dr Latta and to a lesser extent Dr Morgan, who did not feature in it. Her comments could have been coloured by the approach of the general election and that the present government might not want to see information on television about poverty at this time.
The Dominion Post later published two letters supporting Clifton's column, but did not publish letters that he wrote criticising the column for its lack of balance.
In a letter of complaint to The Dominion Post, Mr Waring said if Clifton's column had been published in one of her political commentaries it would have largely escaped notice as her political background was well known. But as a TV review it should have tried to discuss the programme's content. It should not have been "a diatribe attacking the people involved in a programme's production".
The Response
Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney said television reviews, by their very nature, were clearly understood to be matters of opinion, not an unvarnished report of content. Opinion pieces were not required to be balanced in the same way as a news report.
The review was a robust expression of Clifton's views questioning the wisdom of television featuring someone she believed was unqualified to comment in a specific area.
Mr Waring was entitled to disagree with Clifton's view and even to speculate on her political inclinations. However, Clifton was equally entitled to hold a view, and The Dominion Post was entitled to publish it.
The newspaper's website had published a different view on the column, by Jimmy Ryan. Another of the newspaper's television critics, Jane Bowron, had also commented on the Latta series without taking the same line as Clifton.
Letters to the editor expressing differing views on the Clifton column had also been published. Mr Waring's letters were not accepted for publication, but he had had 11 other letter to the editor published this year.
Press Council Decision
The Press Council's fourth principle, Comment and Fact, states that a clear distinction must be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. The report was clearly entitled "Jane Clifton Teleview" and therefore is obviously a column. Columnists are entitled to robustly express their views and normal criteria such as balance do not apply. Clifton's longstanding reputation as a TV and political columnist is also well known. Moreover the newspaper has published differing commentaries, and letters, on this and other Latta programmes in the series. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.