SIMON CLARK AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2370

Council Meeting: MARCH 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage
Conflict of Interest

A complaint about a report which promoted use of homeopathy in farming has not been upheld by the Press Council.
However, Simon Clark's complaint did prompt the deletion of some of the story's content, which first featured on the Stuff website on February 9.

Background
The story featured Piopio organic farmers Nick and Jo Collins, and their claimed success in using homeopathic and holistic techniques to treat animal health issues. They also used the methods to treat themselves and their children. They bought their homeopathic products from a Wellington company till a colleague recommended a Hamilton based company. The story named the Hamilton company, and contained several references to it.
It also said that, when they bought their farm, it had a history of rotavirus infecting stock. They decided not to vaccinate against it, but to use a product from the Hamilton company. This was successful, and was one of many examples of homeopathy working on the farm. "It gives you faith in the process as really, the key is in the results. You can't use the placebo effect on livestock. At the end of the day, if it didn't work we wouldn't be using it," Mr Collins was quoted as saying.
The story also said they used homeopathy on any sick animals first, unless they were in critical condition. They also used it to complement conventional medicines. The couple said any farmers undecided on homeopathy should talk to farmers who were using it, or attend one of the courses the Hamilton based company ran around New Zealand.

The Complaint
Mr Clark, the head small animal veterinarian at a Levin practice, alleged the report breached Press Council principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; comment and fact; and conflict of interest. The report encouraged an approach to medicine that was "dangerous, foolhardy, and demonstrably wrong". It was a proven fact that homeopathic remedies had no medicinal benefit at all.
He was concerned that the report discussed buying medicines directly from a wholesaler without any advice from a veterinary professional. The published report should not be encouraging this.
It was deeply worrying that these farmers did not believed in vaccinations. The risks of not vaccinating were dire, and should not be encouraged.
He rejected Mr Collins' assertions about there being no placebo effect in animals. It was not true, and had been clearly proven.
The whole article had the feel of an advertisement for the Hamilton based company. "I was under the impression that advertorials needed to be advertised as such.”

Stuff Response
Editor Glen Scanlon said the report came to Stuff from the Straight Furrow agricultural publication, and originated from the Dairyman magazine which had published the story on its natural farming page. It also appeared in the Taranaki Daily News.
Rejecting the complainant's assertions about breaches of Press Council principles, Mr Scanlon said the report was the couple's story. They were ardent believers in homeopathic remedies. Stuff had not endorsed this approach, despite the complainant's assertion.
It was a long-running debate and Stuff had run numerous stories on either side of the debate. The story had not reported the couple inaccurately, or treated them or anyone else unfairly. "The story is in no way presented as being fact. It is quite clear the views are the couple's alone and it is up to the reader to make the judgments that they will."
The complainant had responded with his own viewpoint.
The editor had checked with Straight Furrow and the Dairyman magazine, and there was no conflict of interest. The story's author had no connection with the firms mentioned in the story.
However, Mr Scanlon said that, on reading the story after receiving Mr Clark's complaint, he decided to delete several references to the business it referred to. He did so because he felt "uncomfortable" with the context in which the story was used on the Stuff website. "While it might sit well on the Dairyman [magazine] natural farming page it did not sit so well on our farming site." The references did not reflect a conflict of interest "but editorially I was not comfortable with them.”

Press Council Decision
In reporting on issues such as this, the usual practice is for the news media to try to balance the story with a countervailing view or views. However, as Mr Scanlon points out, this is a long running issue and Stuff has previously reported both sides of the debate, so balance is achieved over time.
Mr Clark's complaint did, however, cause the Stuff editor to reconsider references to the Hamilton company, and then delete them. As the editor says, they may have been appropriate in the context of the Dairyman pages, but were not appropriate in terms of Stuff's more general approach. Mr Clark's complaint succeeded in making the editor reconsider these references. However he is still dissatisfied and is entitled to his differing point of view.
Accordingly, because of the ongoing debate on this issue, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint on the principle of Accuracy, fairness and balance.
In terms of the complaint about Comment and fact, the Press Council regards the report as a straightforward account of the couple's views.
The complaint about Conflicts of interest is also not borne out, on the basis of the editor's assertions.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.