ROB PATERSON AGAINST BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

Case Number: 2592

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading

Overview

Rob Paterson complains that an opinion (‘guest view’) piece published by Bay of PlentyTimes on February 4, 2017 titled “Learning nation’s past a way to safeguard future” breaches Press Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 4 (comment and fact) and 12 (corrections).

The BoP Times piece comprised comments by the Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy as to the importance for New Zealanders to understand history. Dame Susan referred in particular to a battle fought during the New Zealand wars in which “women and children who sought shelter in a local church were locked inside and the church burnt to the ground”. Local children visiting the site recently were “horrified” to hear of the event. Their “lives were changed forever” on realising the significance of land they knew well. In Dame Susan’s view young people deserve to know “the good and the bad”. Trying to the hide the past is “neither true not fair”. The piece concluded with comment to the effect New Zealand is an ethnically diverse but peaceful country. For it to stay this way New Zealanders need to understand the consequences should they not “get on with one another”.

Following approaches by the complainant BoP Times published a follow up editorial on March11. The follow up was titled “Battle of Rangiaowhia” (Rangiaowhia being the site of the events referred to by Dame Susan in her February comment). The paper had referred the complaint to Dame Susan. She had responded by saying “various people had told her that women and children were burned to death in a place of worship”. This comment was included in the editorial. Dame Susan then said she was prepared to change her opinion if she was wrong. Dame Susan was quoted however by saying, further, that an “atrocity” had occurred which, if it had taken place in 2017, would have been investigated as “war crime”.

The BoP Times March 11 editorial proceeded to refer to the debates have raged ever since over the Rangiaowhia battle. Historians say houses not churches were burned with people inside although official military sources are “coy” as the ages and genders of those who died. Local iwi are certain women and children were “murdered and burnt to death” as they sought “protection in their churches”. With this said eyewitness accounts are “irreconcilable”. The editorial concluded with the remark that readers should make up their own minds.

The Complaint

The complainant takes strong exception to both BoP Times pieces. Essentially he says the claims women and children were burned to death in locked churches at Rangiaowhia are baseless. The complainant refers to the works by Cowan (The NZ Wars (1922)) and O’Malley (The Great War for New Zealand (2016)), neither of whom say churches were burned. A contemporary 1864NZ Herald article supports the view as does Bruce Moon who published a piece in 2015 under the auspices of the NZ Centre for Political Research.

The complainant says Dame Susan’s remarks are “wrong, misleading and demonstrably untrue and must therefore be retracted”. The March editorial does not rectify matters. The complainant asks the Council when upholding his complaint to directBoP Times to print a retraction and correction under the heading “Setting the record straight on Rangioawhia”

The Response

BoP Times rejects the complaint. BoP Times says “there are different perspectives of history in the controversial matter – that of historians, members of the public and that of iwi”. The newspaper points particularly to the dispute as to whether churches (as such) were burned or whether the troops set fire to a whare karakia (or a house of prayer) in which a group of supposed noncombatants were killed. Whatever the truth iwi have consistently claimed women and children were burned to death during this tragic event.

BoP Times makes four further points. First, had it published a “retraction” it would possibly be subjected to a Press Council complaint by iwi. Secondly, it is not the newspaper’s place to decide the correct version of history but, rather, set out the differing views. Thirdly, and in relation to Dame Susan’s comments about the schoolchildren, the paper says she was referring just to students’ reactions as to what they had been told. Finally, Dame Susan’s “guest view” piece was demonstrably opinion. And with the paper publishing the March 11editorial no correction as sought by the complainant is merited.

The Decision

The complainant faces two Insurmountable difficulties.

For a start Dame Susan’s comments, over which the complainant takes the greatest exception, were expressed as opinion. Opinions neither have to be fair nor balanced. While principle 4 requires facts upon which opinions are based to be accurate it is impossible to establish what really happened at Rangiaowhia over 150 years ago.

Secondly BoP Times’s 11 March editorial squarely pointed to the historical controversies. It effectively presented both sides of the divide.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten and Mark Stevens.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain a public member majority.