RIGHT TO LIFE NZ INC AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2559

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Right to Life Inc, represented by its secretary, Ken Orr, complains about an article published byThe Press on October 29, 2016. The complaint is of a breach of Press Council principle 1, concerning accuracy, fairness and balance.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

On October 29, 2016, The Press published an article reporting on submissions made to Parliament’s Health select committee when it held hearings in Christchurch on euthanasia.

The first part of the article focussed on a submission made by a woman with Huntington’s disease, in favour of the right to choose euthanasia. It then reported that the majority of submissions were against physician-assisted suicide and summarised the views expressed in those submissions. The final part of the article reported and commented on a controversy over police action against members of Exit International, a euthanasia group, and a subsequent prosecution

The Complaint

Right to Life complains that the article was an advocacy article promoting euthanasia and that it positively advocated suicide as a rational act. It was therefore in conflict with guidelines on suicide reporting given by the Mental Health Foundation.. In the opinion of Right to Life, the media have a duty not to promote suicide as a rational act. On the contrary, they should vigorously uphold the Crimes Act (which prohibits assisting in suicide).

Right to Life also consider that the article failed to give sufficient weight to the fact that most of the submissions heard by the select committee were opposed to euthanasia and that the article is unfair in “leading people to believe that the only way to be free of pain and suffering is to be killed by your doctor.”

The Response

The editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, did not accept that there was any breach of the Press Council principles.

The story was one of several reporting on the select committee hearings as it moved round the country hearing submissions on voluntary euthanasia. It placed the select committee process in the context of the wider debate on voluntary euthanasia.

The story (and its headline) accurately represented the views of a submitter. The Press has reported the views of a wide range of submitters and has, over time, also covered more general issues relating to voluntary euthanasia, again reporting on a wide range of views.

Ms Norris comments that in considering a previous complaint from the same complainant, the Press Council found thatThe Press had provided persuasive information to support the contention that its overall coverage of the right to die issue has been balanced. She considers that the complainant appears to be determined to test and re-test the same principle whenever an opposing view is published and that there is no willingness to accept that the media has a right and an obligation to present a diversity of views.

The Decision

The Press Council has, as noted by Ms Norris, previously found that the overall coverage byThe Press of the debate over voluntary euthanasia has been fair and balanced. The complainant has not provided any evidence or argument that would persuade it to change its view. There are no identifiable inaccuracies in the article, it is reasonably fair and balanced as a stand-alone piece, and it is certainly so in the context of the many items on the issue that have been published byThe Press and other media.

Right to Life considers the media have a duty to uphold and advocate for existing legislation. While media should not encourage breaking the law (and there is nothing in the article that would amount to such encouragement), there is no reason why they should not report on advocacy for changes to existing law. Indeed when there is substantial public debate on an issue, as there is on euthanasia, it is part of the essential role of the media to report and comment on it.

Similarly, Right to Life refers to guidelines on suicide reporting put out by the Mental Health foundation. These guidelines advise against presenting suicide as a desired outcome or using language that may suggest suicide as a viable solution to pain and distress. In the view of the Press Council, the guidelines were not breached by reporting on submissions made to the select committee – it was simply not a case of reporting on a suicide.

The Press Council is concerned that the complainant appears unable or unwilling to accept that reporting the expression of views contrary to its own is not a matter of inaccuracy or that it is neither unfair nor unbalanced to report on occasion at rather greater length on one aspect of a long-running issue. It will continue to scrutinise complaints submitted by Right to Life, but unless Right to Life is able to produce at least some cogent evidence of a breach of Press Council principles, it is likely that there will be a recommendation to withdraw the complaint rather than submitting it for a full Council determination.

Decision

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.