Case Number: 792

Council Meeting: August 2000

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

A complaint by Simon Boyce of Paraparaumu about a column in The Dominion has been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council. Mr Boyce complained about errors in a column by Rosemary McLeod in the edition of June 15, 2000. The column entitled "Beware, this will be grossly fair" was a forceful, and at times angry, comment on the news that convicted paedophile Lloyd McIntosh was eligible for early release from jail.

In the course of the column, McLeod referred to McIntosh once as McIntyre, and also quoted a Corrections Department spokesman. McLeod reminded readers of the horrific details of McIntosh's crime as a "useful counterpoint to the assurances of the sanguine Corrections Department spokesman." She also said that the family of McIntosh's victim lived in fear of his release because they knew he could "now ask for his freedom every six months" and they knew what he was capable of.

McLeod's main points, made in tones of steely irony presaged by the headline, were that McIntosh's sentence was inadequate, the notion of parole unconscionable, and her baulking at McIntosh's eligibility for release was because she was the sort of person to whom the rape of a 23-month-old baby was an unforgivable crime.

The day after publication, The Dominion corrected the source of the comments supposedly made by the Corrections Department spokesman, reporting that they were actually made by a source close to McIntosh. The newspaper also noted that the Corrections Department had earlier in the year applied to the Parole Board for a special order keeping McIntosh in prison until three months before the end of his full 10-year sentence. The June 11 Sunday Star-Times story which appears to be the source for McLeod's column said the Parole Board decision was to be reviewed every six months.

While few would disagree with McLeod's expressions of disgust at the crime sheeted home to McIntosh, called "a menace to society" by the judge, Boyce is correct when he complains about the errors.

A source close to McIntosh would naturally put the best possible light on McIntosh's current behaviour, and say the prisoner was making a strong effort to help himself. That is unexceptional. Coming from a Corrections Department spokesman, it could be grounds for the kind of strong opinions which Rosemary McLeod gave vent to. McLeod, a frequent scrutiniser of crime and punishment, bases her column on this supposed "official" comment. The fact her opinion gains impetus from two direct quotes attributed to this spokesperson shows how powerfully the identity of the source helped her to form her conclusions.

Unfortunately it was a case of mistaken identity. Robust column comment should depend in the first place for its validity on the actual facts or real situation which is the basis for the opinion. Here, McLeod's Broadside, as her column is titled, blasts at the wrong target, leaving a potentially disturbing and valid comment less potent because it is wide of its real mark. To its credit, the newspaper correction was the day after publication. Elements of McLeod's column remain legitimate, her opinions stirring on a matter of great public interest. But nonetheless this is sloppy column writing, since the thrust of her critical unease hinged to a great extent on the Corrections Department's apparently cavalier attitude which was never expressed.

The substitution of the name McIntyre once for that of McIntosh, is a minor flaw (it is hard to know at what stage of the writing or publishing process such an error may creep in), but nonetheless this mistake does not help to dispel a kind of slapdash feeling that clings to this column.

The complaint is upheld