SIMON BOYCE AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2405

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Offensive Language
Politicians
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

Simon Boyce complained about a letter printed in The Dominion Post four days after the general election. He believed it breached the principle that editors should be guided by fairness, balance and public interest in publishing letters sent to them.
The letter, by John Ansell of Martinborough, praised the election night concession by Kim Dotcom and contrasted it with the performance of “the rest of the Left”. Mr Boyce called the letter a tirade of invective and abuse directed at people Mr Ansell was not prepared to name. He believed fairness implied the reader should not have to guess who was being attacked. The author of the book ‘Dirty Politics’, Nicky Hager, deserved better than to be called “a tame muckraker” in Mr Boyce’s view, and he added, “epithets and caricatures cannot possibly be in the public interest”.
Fairfax Newspapers’ Regional Editor in Chief replied that The Dominion Post’s opinion pages represented a balance of views over a period. In the week that John Ansell’s letter was published letters of the opposing point of view had appeared. Some had been expressed, like Mr Ansell’s, in “flamboyant language”. Mr Boyce clearly disagreed with the stylistic device of referring to people by description, not name, but it was a device Mr Ansell should be allowed to use. Mr Boyce could have submitted a letter to the editor in similarly robust language but had not done so.
Mr Boyce responded that Mr Ansell had resumed an attack on “Dotcom and his henchmen, to borrow the abusive term that John Key used”. But when the Prime Minister had used that term the media had to make it clear who the “henchmen” were. Mr Ansell should also have to name those who were being “defamed”. The language of letters cited by the editor that were critical of Mr Key did not use the name-calling “now associated with the political right”. Mr Boyce did not believe The Dominion Post would publish a letter from him in robust language since it had not printed one he wrote in moderate language on a different subject.
The Press Council found the letter to be a strongly worded comment on a subject of public interest. Those it criticised were not referred to by name but were easily identifiable by any reader who had been following the election campaign. Clearly the complainant had no difficulty identifying them. He believed Mr Ansell was obliged to identify them by name because he was “defaming” them. Defamation is a question for a court not the Press Council, but Mr Ansell had not breached the Council’s principles of fair comment.
The case appeared to reflect a debate in the recent election campaign about so called “attack politics” from the Government and right wing online blogs. That debate played no part in the Council’s consideration of the complaint. In the Council’s view the language of the letter was within the bounds of robust political argument and its publication was well within the prerogative of an editor guided by fairness, balance and public interest. The complaint was not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.