RYAN CARR AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2566

Council Meeting: MARCH 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Editorial Freedom
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Ryan Carr, Mike Loder and Shane Borrell each complain that an editorial published by theOtago Daily Times (ODT) titled Guns: New Conversation Needed on January 11, 2017 breaches several Press Council principles (notably Principle 1 Accuracy, fairness and balance.)

The ODT editorial opened by referring to “another fatal shooting by police and yet more debate about the firearms availability”. The editorial commented generally in relation to increasing police shootings, the enquiry currently underway by Parliament’s law and order select committee as to the availability of “illegal firearms”, recent thefts of military style semi-automatic firearms and the wider issue of the balance between the rights of responsible gun owners and firearm importation. The editorial questioned “how many firearms does one licensed owner require…?” and whether current laws around the sale, possession and storage of firearms are adequate. The editorial concluded with a comment that “for the more guns we have, the more potential for harm for everybody…”.

The sentence most in contention was “50,000 guns enter the country each year (many are legally bought by licensed owners – hunters and sportspeople) but more than 20,000 are then stolen or sold to offenders”

Following publication ODT agreed that the reference in the editorial to the number of firearms stolen in New Zealand was incorrect. It had based this reference on comments from Chris Cahill, the Police Association president. TheODT apologised and published a corrected editorial noting the reference should have said “50,000 guns enter the country each year, a number of which are stolen or sold to offenders.”

The Complaint

Messrs Carr, Loder and Borrell essentially make the same point. All are in favour of gun owners’ rights and take exception with the thrust of theODT piece. All forcefully advance the argument that the ODT’s comments are out of order and are inaccurate. Mr Carr says the editorial is “blatantly anti-firearm in nature” with significant sections “based entirely on personal opinion”. The editorial contains “untruths” particularly with regard to the number of stolen firearms in criminal hands. Mr Carr says that theODT’s apology and restated opinion is inadequate. The editorial has been used to “push personal agendas” and “employs heavy hyperbole, rhetoric and disingenuous statements with very little objectivity or balance”. It is not right for theODT to have relied on the comments from Mr Cahill. They were a “lie” and Mr Cahill’s facts were not checked.

Mr Loder says that the ODT’s “modest retraction” in relation to the number of stolen guns is “just not good enough”. Mr Loder refers to the editorial as a “bad joke”. Mr Loder has asked the Council to withhold his name “for safety and security reasons”.

Mr Borrell says that the article is “filled with misleading and factually false information”. Many of the statistics quoted were “fiction”. Mr Borrell says that the article is “dishonest”.

The Response

ODT rejects the complaint. ODT points to the fact that this was an editorial and therefore an opinion piece. TheODT refers to its prompt correcting amendment. ODT says the editorial “raises various pertinent and topical questions around gun ownership, illegal firearms and gun violence (intentional and accidental)”.ODT highlights its statement in the editorial that there is a “difficult balance” in the debate. The piece referred expressly to the risk that responsible gun owners will be “tarred with any reaction or any brush”.

The Decision

The newspaper relies on Principles 4 and 5. A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information on the one hand and comment or opinion on the other.

The ODT editorial was undoubtedly an opinion piece. Opinion pieces need not be balanced and need not to present all sides to an issue. This said, material facts upon which an opinion is based should be accurate.

The Press Council does not agree with the complainants. The newspaper was entitled to opine in relation to questions of gun violence. It was entitled to express concerns as to the apparent increasing numbers of illegal firearms and their use in increasing gun violence. The newspaper, by expressing this opinion, was not required to advance the arguments referred to by the complainants. It is only in the rarest of cases will an opinion piece breach the Council’s principles. TheODT editorial does not fall into this category.

The Council notes the newspaper’s prompt correction to the editorial. It does not agree with Mr Carr when he says the revised editorial was “disingenuous”.

Mr Loder sought anonymity as he considered that publishing his name could make him the target of gun thieves. The Press Council sees anonymity orders as the exception rather than the rule. Other than the allegation he could be a target the complainant offers no evidence to support his view. We decline the request for anonymity.

The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Vernon Small and Tim Watkin.