ROSEMARY WILLIAMS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2287

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Rosemary Williams claims Stuff.co.nz (the Fairfax online news service) failed to comply with Principles 1 (Accuracy, Balance and Fairness), 4 (Comment and Fact) and 5 (Headlines and Captions) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in relation to a piece published on Sunday 29 July 2012 headed “Why Macsyna doesn’t deserve a sorry”
(link: http://www.Stuff.co.nz/national/crime/7370210/Why-Macsyna-doesn-t-deserve-a-sorry).

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
The piece in question was written by a contributor, Michael Laws. The piece opened with the line “Macsyna King, the mother of the murdered Kahui twins, wants an apology from you and me. She is claiming exoneration in the light of this week’s release of the coronial inquiry into the murder of her boys”. The piece provided some (limited) background to the Kahui twins tragedy. It went on to express strong views as to why no apology should be extended to Ms King. It is not clear from whom Ms King was actually seeking the apology. It is sufficient to say the piece was highly critical of Ms King and her ability to raise children. Basically, according to the contributor, an apology was the last thing Ms King deserved.

The Complaint
Rosemary Williams’ claims are focused. Ms Williams is not disputing Stuff’s right to publish this piece as opinion despite the disparaging and unbalanced thrust. Rather Ms Williams points to the piece initially appearing on the Stuff site without it being qualified as opinion and without attribution. Ms Williams says it was particularly misleading for Stuff not to have identified the piece to have been written by Mr Laws, a person who Ms Williams says is “someone who has in the past breached standards of good taste and decency… and is widely regarded as a polarising figure”. Ms Williams suggests the piece would have been interpreted differently had the author been identified.

Ms Williams also complains that when the piece first appeared on the Stuff site (at 9 am July 29, 2012) the “feature” occupied the top left hand corner box complete with an image of Ms King. Ms Williams referred to the headline which read (at this point) “Seeking a sorry; call for community apology”. Ms Williams says there was no indication from the heading that the link was to an opinion piece. The heading, according to Ms Williams, “suggests a report, stating Ms King’s position and perhaps the position of others. It certainly does not suggest an opinion piece that criticises Ms King severely”.

Ms Williams claims Stuff has breached Principles 1, 4 and 5 as a result. Ms Williams says it is incumbent upon Stuff to take more care in the presentation of such pieces. This is unacceptably sloppy journalism on Stuff’s part.

The Response
Stuff responds by acknowledging that the piece appeared for a short time without the necessary byline and opinion tag. The editor explains that the piece was “uploaded as part of a Saturday night process where Sunday Star-Times [an associated newspaper] is carried over to go live on Stuff at 5am on Sunday. As part of this process, the tag and byline was left off.”

This error was corrected later on Sunday morning. Further the work was attributed promptly to Mr Laws.

The Decision
While Ms Williams is justified in noting the absence of the “opinion” tag for the piece and in criticising the headline “Seeking a sorry; call for community apology” these are not matters which lead the Council to determine its Principles have been breached.

The Council notes Stuff’s speedy unprompted response when the omissions Ms Williams identifies were discovered internally. The errors were rectified within hours. The Council does not agree with Ms Williams when she says the errors demonstrate “sloppy” journalism by Stuff and a failure to maintain the high standards required of the Press.

The Council notes Ms Williams’ reference to the headline “Seeking a sorry; call for community apology”. It is unclear as to whether this headline actually linked to the piece by Mr Laws or whether it was in fact was associated with another (news) story. The link in question has been severed and appears not capable of being retrieved.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.