SIMON LYMBERY AGAINST THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2636

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Photographs
Sensationalism
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Simon Lymbery and Mike Loder have separately complained about a story published inThe Dominion Post and on the Stuff website on October 9 that highlighted the fact firearms were to be sold at a weekend militaria auction held at a Wellington school. Mr Loder also complained about a public opinion survey that appeared on the website. The complaints are not upheld.

The Article

2. The newspaper reported that an “arsenal of weapons, including semi-automatic machine guns” would be on sale at St Patricks College, Kilbirnie, that weekend. The college rector said militaria auctions had been held there for 25 years without an incident or an outcry from parents. Police would be present and it was in school holidays.

3. The story contained criticism from a member of Peace Action Wellington that the auction in a community venue could encourage the view that military weapons were an everyday, acceptable part of modern life. It also contained a defence of the event from the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners.

The Complaint

4. Mr Lymbery considers the story, originally headed “Las Vegas shooter-style assault weapons to go on sale at Wellington school”, was in poor taste, intentionally misleading and put the financial and physical welfare of law-abiding people at risk. He believes the article was not accurate, fair or balanced.

5. Words such as “arsenal” and “high-powered weapons” and “assault rifle” were misleading in his view as all firearms sold to collectors have to be rendered inoperable. The headline reference to the Las Vegas shooting was fear-mongering. The precise make and models of weapons used in that tragedy had not been released.

6. Failure to mention the event’s entry requirements implied anyone could walk in and buy a military firearm. The article did nothing to remind people the event was legal, safe and commonplace, and that of the thousands of items on sale only a few were firearms.

7. The story was illustrated with stock images, not items in the auction, and this was not clearly indicated. A photo of an armed police officer bore no relation to the event. Mr Loder complained about a photo of an AK47 held by a terrorist, saying this was not a fair representation of a tightly controlled auction.

8. Publication of the story led to an undue public outcry, putting the welfare of attendees at risk and resulting in the event being postponed, costing the venue valued revenue and wasting the money of those travelling to the event.

9. Mr Loder’s complaint alluded to most of those points and also objected to an online survey that appeared on the Stuff site, asking, “Which is more dangerous? Guns. People.” The word “guns” was accompanied by an emoji of an angry face, the word “people” with a sad face. Nevertheless, the vote was "ten to one in favour of sanity”, Mr Loder says. “So the paper pulled the poll. Didn’t suit the agenda.”

The Response

10. Fairfax Media’s Chief News Director for Wellington, Eric Janssen, said the story was prompted by approaches from concerned people. He did not know why they were concerned now rather than previously in the event’s 25 years, but thought it possible recent mass shootings in the world had heightened awareness of firearms in the community. The people were particularly concerned the auction was being held at a school.

11. The organisers declined to comment or engage with reporters for the story, When the Vice-Chairman of the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners contacted Fairfax after the initial publication, the headline was changed online to, “Deactivated firearms to go on sale at Wellington school”.

12. On the accuracy of terms used in the story and original headline, Mr Janssen, says the Las Vegas killer had an AR15 rifle and there was at least one of those in the auction. It may be that deactivated firearms are not “weapons” in the view of gun aficionados but the general public, for whom Stuff and the Dominion Post write, would absolutely classify them as such.

13. On the questions of fairness and balance, Mr Janssen agrees the article needed comment from the event organiser who declined to provide anything useful. Nevertheless, Fairfax did as much as they could to reflect the true nature of the event, its history and rules. They recorded its lack of previous issues, the fact that the police would attend, the fact the auction was for “strictly vetted collectors” and items needed to be disabled.

14. On the use of photographs, Mr Janssen said the firearm in the lead image was the same type as one of the sale items. It was clearly marked “file photo” to indicate it was not a fresh photo related to the auction. The photo of the police officer was cropped to put the focus on his firearm, not the officer.

15. Mr Janssen invited the Vice-Chairman of the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners, Michael Dowling, to write an OpEd article on the issues raised, and his 600 word article ran on Stuff and in the Dominion Post. In response to Mr Loder, Mr Janssen denied the online survey was pulled because it didn’t suit “an anti-gun agenda”. He ordered it taken down because Mr Dowling’s article was on the site at the same time and a reader objected to the article being accompanied by a poll questioning its viewpoint.

The Decision

16. These complaints are based on the Press Council’s first principles of accuracy, fairness and balance. While references to an “arsenal” of weapons and a “battery” of firearms in the opening paragraphs may be unduly emotive and melodramatic, to suggest words such as “weapons” and “assault rifle” are inaccurate is pedantic. Traders and collectors of firearms might not define them as “weapons” or an “assault rifle” if they are de-activated but most people would refer to them as such. The precise weapon used by the Las Vegas shooter might not have been revealed but he was known to be a collector and his arsenal included an assault rifle. It was accurate and fair for the story to point this out.

17. Nor was the report unbalanced. It explained that the auction had been held for 25 years without incident or outcry, that police would be present. It quoted Mr Dowling saying only strictly vetted collectors could buy militarised weapons, which had to be deactivated once in their collections. In fact nearly half the number of paragraphs in the story were favourable to the event.

18. The original headline, referring to “Las Vegas shooter-style assault weapons” was later changed online and some images removed. The complainants see these alterations as an admission of fault but the Council does not. It is common for reports to be refined online as more information is gained or public feedback indicates a need for clarification. Improvements do not necessarily imply the original was false or unfair.

19. Mr Loder also complained about the online survey. He objected to both its presentation and the decision to take it off the site. The Council can see nothing unusual in the survey — its use of “emoji” is common illustrative practice — and accepts Mr Janssen’s explanation for taking it down.

20. The complainants considered the auction mundane and unworthy of the attentionThe Dominion Post and Stuff gave it. The Council does not agree. The complainants need to recognise that, rightly or wrongly, some people find the hobby of gun collecting mildly disturbing regardless of whether collectors’ items have been rendered incapable of killing. Those readers would have been surprised and disturbed to learn an auction of firearms was to be held in a nearby school, albeit on a weekend in school holidays. The story was of legitimate public interest.

21. The fact the auction had been held for 25 years without attracting the same attention may be a reflection of heightened public concern after mass shootings in the United States, especially the Las Vegas incident a week before this story appeared. But far from this making the story unfair and tasteless as the complainants see it, the heightened concern increases the report’s validity in the Council’s view. The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.