RICHARD WATTS AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2519

Council Meeting: JUNE 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Richard Watts complains that a number of stories published by the New Zealand Herald in a series in May 2016 under the title "Family Violence; we're better than this" breaches two of the Councils' principles: accuracy, fairness and balance, and discrimination and diversity.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background

Mr Watts contends that over a series of 30 articles on family violence the newspaper failed to portray both sides of the issue fairly, specifically that it did not give due weight to men as victims of family violence and women as perpetrators of it, with only two articles giving a balancing perspective on the domestic violence issue. He believes that in doing so it misinformed its readers and did "cause or reinforce misandry" - dislike or ingrained prejudice against men.

The Complaint

To support his argument, that men as victims are understated in general, Mr Watts pointed to an academic article by David Fergusson and others "Partner Violence and Mental Health Outcomes in a New Zealand Birth Cohort," from 2005.

He argued that article and another from Harvard University (which appears to be one written by a group of public health researchers in Atlanta led by Daniel Whittaker), showed that almost half of violent relations were reciprocally violent and in non-reciprocally violent relationships women were the perpetrators in more than 70 per cent of the cases.

In his view the series taken as a whole - not any one article - was therefore based on a factually inaccurate view point and was unfairly biased against men.

His central argument can be summed up by his comments: "What this means is that the type of domestic violence that theNew Zealand Herald spent the majority of its article series exploring could be considered the least common type of domestic violence" meaning the series was unfair and unbalanced, inaccurate and discriminatory against men.

He further argued it had promoted gender discrimination by portraying men as violent and sociopathic.

He said bringing to light domestic violence was a noble goal and he did not fault the newspaper for doing so.

The Response

In reply editor Murray Kirkness rejected any breach of the principles. He argued that in the series the newspaper had acknowledged multiple times that men were victims too, citing articles on May 7, May 9 and May 10 (including a full story about a man subjected to violence by a female partner). It also ran an opinion piece by Bob McCroskie on May 13 that dealt with violence against men.

Mr Kirkness said the premise of the campaign was to focus on the worst area of family violence; violence and abuse against women. He cited government figures showing from 2009 to 2012 that 76 per cent of intimate partner related deaths were perpetrated by men. He said they also showed one third of women experienced physical or sexual abuse at some time and that 24 per cent of women are victims of sexual offences against 6 per cent of men.

He also pointed to those "who spoke to the fact it was the worst area of family violence" including police, Justice Minister Amy Adams, Women's Refuge and frontline agencies.

Mr Kirkness invited Mr Watts to submit his opinion in a letter to the editor which would be considered for publication.

The Decision

There are studies to suggest violence against men may be underestimated, but even in the two articles cited by Mr Watts the conclusions drawn from the statistics are somewhat limited and contingent and the studies are of limited cohorts.

For instance Fergusson et al notes that the most severe cases of violence and of death were not included with only "relatively mild incidents" studied in the research paper. It also notes the need for further research to reconcile findings that there is little gender difference in mild or moderate assaults but a clear male predominance in incidents involving severe injury and death.

But it is not the role of the Council to review the academic literature and come to a conclusion on the nature and levels of family violence and its gender break down, even of it had the resources to do so.

The Council's role is to assess whether the articles and the series in this case offered a fair, accurate and balanced representation and treatment of the issues and individuals covered.

The newspaper on a number of occasions referenced men as victims of abuse and for instance noted that on average 10 men and 13 women are killed each year as a result of family violence.

In an editorial on May 7 at the beginning of the series the Herald argued that the problem "is men, not all men, not even most men, and as some men always point out, not just men. Women can and do resort to violence too."

But while canvassing alternative views, it also made clear in its editorial opinion piece that in its view the issue was too important to be "blurred and broadened for the sake of gender neutrality" saying it was a fair bet women were not responsible for most family violence and certainly not the worst of it.

As a consequence of that – in what could be characterised as a campaigning stance, which is a legitimate role of the media - the majority of examples dealt with violence against women. But there was also a thread throughout the series that the problem was one of family violence and the need for society at large to address the issue, not just men. That was reflected in the title of the series - "Family Violence; we're better than this." And as noted, violence against men was covered on several occasions.

The Council believes the series was a well-motivated, worthwhile campaign aimed at highlighting and reducing family violence. The newspaper was entitled as part of that to stress men's role in domestic violence, which it believed was the most pressing issue.

It could in no way be characterised as depicting men as sociopathic nor does the Council believe that highlighting men's part in domestic violence, while acknowledging they can also be victims, placed gratuitous emphasis on gender.

The Council notes that the way is open for Mr Watts to submit his view point in a letter to the editor.

The Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Vernon Small, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.