RIGHT TO LIFE NZ AGAINST AUCKLAND NOW
Case Number: 2309
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2013
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Auckland Now
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Ken Orr, representing the Right to Life anti-abortion campaign group, complains about an opinion blog by Richard Boock published on AucklandNOW, part of Fairfax Media's Stuff website. The complaint is not upheld.
The weekly blog appeared on November 20 2012 and commented on the death in Ireland of Savitra Halappanava. It had been widely reported that she died of septicaemia and had been denied an abortion. Mr Boock's opinion piece was headlined "Irish abortion scandal echoes here". Part of it said "everywhere you look, extremists and activists are trying to deny women access to abortion services. The tactics of anti-abortion protesters in Southland are case in point."
He went on to say "the group" had used intimidation and bullying and had vowed to publicise the names of those who participated in the termination service. Later he said the "threat to name" was another example of busybodies with personal ideological agendas. "Intimidating and threatening health professionals can only lead to more Savitra Halappanavas."
The blog attracted comment, and the complainant, Mr Orr, was the first to express his contrary opinions on the site. Later, he did so again.
He also complained to AucklandNOW, saying Mr Boock's "article" included false and unfair statements, which also lacked balance. He cited Press Council principles covering those points. While his group supported the right to free speech and the right to freely express an opinion, a clear distinction was needed between factual information and comment or opinion.
The report had included several statements "presented as fact which were incorrect and damaged the good name of respected members of the community, pro-life organisations and the Irish health system."
Referencing the blog, Mr Orr said Savitra Halappanava did not die because she was refused a legal abortion. Her death had nothing to do with abortion. He said the writer should await the outcome of the official investigation if he wanted the "facts".
The writer had also made "false and insulting remarks" about members of the Southland community who were prepared to speak up on behalf of unborn children and the welfare of their mothers. The group, Southlanders for Life (S4L) had never threatened staff or property, was totally opposed to violence, and committed to weekly prayer vigils outside the hospital. It had sought the names of those performing abortions at Southland Hospital, but had not decided what would be done with the names if they got them. "They have no intention of naming and shaming staff."
Editor Steve Hopkins responded by email to Mr Orr's complaint on November 28. He said the blog was clearly identified as an opinion piece, and its content and opinions were Mr Boock's own.
He noted that it had been widely reported that Savitra Halappanava died of septicaemia and that she was denied an abortion.
"In respect to the comment Richard made concerning intimidation and bullying, he does not say they were made by your group – Southlanders for Life. He says 'anti abortion protesters in Southland'. It has been reported that police are investigating threats to the Invercargill abortion clinic and that staff there are concerned about being identified, so that is fair comment."
Complaint to Press Council
Dissatisfied with that response, Mr Orr complained to the Press Council and repeated the gist of the complaint he made to AucklandNOW.
Mr Hopkins denied Mr Orr's assertion that the piece was an article and repeated that it was a blog and clearly displayed on AucklandNOW as an opinion piece. Fairfax Media's policy was to make such items easily identifiable to readers so that they knew they were reading the author's personal opinion on a topic, rather than an objective, factual account.
"Much of Mr Orr's points of complaint can be dealt with by this distinction being made because his issues concern Mr Boock's honestly held opinions."
Abortions were contentious, and Fairfax Media expected readership reaction. This was why it allowed readers to comment on the item, and why Mr Orr's comment was the first expressed on the site. More of his comments were published in the ensuing dialogue.
Mr Hopkins also disagreed with some of Mr Orr's claims about the Irish controversy.
Mr Boock's comments about the Southland situation were "fair comment" based on accounts of what was happening there and which the police had formally acknowledged. "Further, Mr Orr in his letter to the Press Council, acknowledged some of these comments were fair."
Mr Boock's comments onreports of "threats to name" those carrying out abortion work in Southland were his honestly held opinion, based on reports of the protests in Southland.
Mr Orr's Final Comments
Mr Orr said he freely acknowledged that the Boock blog was an opinion piece that combined fact with opinion. However, the writer had a duty to clearly differentiate fact from opinion, and had failed to do so.
The Irish inquiry into the woman's death had not yet been completed and he agreed with the editor that he could not conclude what happened to her before her death. Neither was Mr Boock in a position to do so. However, the fact that it had been widely reported on the Internet that she died after being refused an abortion did not prove that had happened.
As far as the Southland situation was concerned, he challenged the editor's assertion that Mr Boock's views were fair comment. Right to Life had officially sought documents about accusations of threats to staff and property. Its request had been referred to the police, who had refused to supply the information.
"The situation then is that neither the editor nor we know the identity or whereabouts of the person or persons who have allegedly threatened staff nor do we know if the threats are genuine."
Press Council Decision
The piece complained about was clearly presented as an opinion piece. The NZPC's statement of principles notes that there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression, and that in dealing with complaints the Council will give "primary consideration" to freedom of expression and the public interest.
The Press Council has also said that a writer, even of an opinion piece, cannot deliberately mislead readers, perhaps by ignoring or omitting known facts, or by wilfully misrepresenting the facts.
However in this case the "facts" are still unclear: At the date of publication the outcome of the Irish inquiry was not known. In the case of the Southland protest, published claims of intimidation and bullying, and threats to "name" those involved in termination services, have been made. The names of those involved in terminations have been sought by opponents. The claims have not been officially substantiated and the Council cannot determine that the columnist was wrong.
The blogger has the right to express his opinions, which some may find provocative or offensive in this emotionally charged debate. However, people reacting to those comments - including Mr Orr - were given the opportunity to exercise their own freedom of expression and did so on the website.
Columnists and bloggers are frequently offensive in their comments as they seek to provoke discussion.
In this case, those with opposing views were given the right of reply and their views (including Mr Orr's) were published.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.