RIGHT TO LIFE NZ INC AGAINST AUCKLAND NOW

Case Number: 2234

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Auckland Now

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

A complaint lodged by Ken Orr, on behalf of Right to Life NZ Inc, against Auckland Now is not upheld.



Background:
An blog written by journalist Richard Boock on abortion entitled “A woman’s right to choose” was published by Auckland Now, on stuff.co.nz. The article outlined the journalist’s dislike of comparison of Down syndrome testing with eugenics, by pro-lifers.
Boock argued that the test was optional and offered women information ‘about their own bodies and future’. He stated that most women whose test reveals a Down syndrome child prefer to terminate. He indicated that pro-lifers suggest the presence of Down syndrome children should be maintained as though they are ‘some sort of endangered species’ but that our world has moved on from celebrating ‘biological bloopers’ rather than wanting to ‘force them on future generations’.
Boock supported the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand’s push to ease restrictions on abortion, stating that women should be able to have a safe abortion ‘more or less on demand’. He criticised pro-lifers for being more concerned with ‘forcing women to carry unwanted babies to full term’ than any concern about children with Down syndrome.
A wide variety of comments were posted, both supportive of and disagreeing with Boock’s opinion.
Ken Orr, secretary for Right to Life NZ Inc., complained to the editor of Fairfax Media. He listed a range of complaints about the article, including Mr Boock’s use of some of the words quoted in (3) above. He argued that Mr Boock could not know whether women were pressured to have abortions on receipt of a positive test, whereas his organisation had evidence that this occurred. He requested the editor to make a public apology on the website, or he would lay a complaint with the Human Rights Commissioner and the Press Council.
The editor for Auckland Now, Miriyana Alexander, responded indicating that she did not believe an apology was needed. The work was clearly marked as a blog and was clearly an opinion piece. Bloggers frequently expressed views that others will disagree with, and reader comment on these is accepted and published. Dissatisfied, Mr Orr then laid a formal complaint with the Press Council.



The Complaint:
Mr Orr claimed that the article contravened Principles 1, 3 and 6. He stated that the journalist’s comments about people with Down syndrome were deeply offensive, eugenic and encouraging of only the ‘perfect’ having the right to be born. Mr Orr linked this attitude with the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany prior to the Second World War.
He argued that the article was in violation of the NZ Bill of Rights that prohibits discrimination against others, and was also in violation of the government’s Disability Strategy that seeks to encourage a more inclusive society for those with disabilities.
His complaint stated that it was factually incorrect, and also a breach of Principle 4, that the journalist stated there was no suggestion of coercion one way or the other. According to Mr Orr, ‘the sole purpose of early antenatal screening for Down syndrome is to offer abortions to mothers solely on the basis of a diagnosis of Down syndrome’.
The complaint further contended that the article breached Principle 3, on children and young people, as it could result in the development in readers of detrimental attitudes towards people with disabilities. The complaint concluded that while the organisation supports the right of free speech in a democratic society, the article was a ‘gross misuse of free speech’.



The Website’s Response:
In her reply to the Council, the editor responded that Mr Boock is engaged to write twice-weekly blogs on a variety of topics, which are clearly opinion. She did not accept that the blog encouraged people to accept ‘the need for the elimination before birth of those with Down syndrome’. Mr Boock did not state this, nor encourage people to discriminate against anyone with disabilities.
Accordingly, she rejected Mr Orr’s complaint and stood by Mr Boock’s right to express his views.



Mr Orr chose not to respond further.



Discussion:
The subject of abortion is clearly one over which people have widely varying and deeply held views. Those who believe it is an issue of a woman’s right to choose are strongly opposed by those who believe that life begins at conception, and are opposed to abortion. The two sides are never likely to agree, and expressions of opinion from either side are encouraged in a democratic society.
The article, as a blog, is clearly opinion, and the Council has supported the right of publications to publish opinion pieces, even when they are particularly controversial. Auckland Now did publish comments from readers, responding to Mr Boock’s initial blog, both for and against the article.



The complaint is not upheld.



Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.



Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.