Case Number: 850

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge

An Auckland solicitor, Mary Hackshaw, has complained to the Press Council on behalf of Auckland SPCA chief executive Bob Kerridge about an article headed What’s Dead, Pussycat? in the July 28-August 3 edition of the New Zealand Listener.

The article, promoted on the magazine’s cover with the teaser Ban the Cat! The Campaign To Control Pet Enemy Number One, was sparked by a Forest and Bird Society policy statement on making more use of the Resource Management Act to classify some bush-side communities pet-free.

Written by Jane Clifton, the four-page feature canvassed the propensity for cats – domesticated, stray or feral – to be efficient killers of prey, be it birds or vermin. The article quoted diverse sources, including overseas research, people involved with Wellington’s Karori wildlife sanctuary, politicians, academics, and Mr Kerridge.

The feature also included two related sidebars, one about a pet-free subdivision on the Coromandel Peninsula, and the other, headed Ban The Cat – Really? about the positions of various political parties and lobby groups on cat ownership.

On July 30, the Listener received a letter from Ms Hackshaw, a Papatoetoe solicitor, written on instructions from Mr Kerridge, which said he had been quoted out of context, that the Listener had deliberately misrepresented and misstated comments from him, and that the magazine had published his photograph without permission. Further, Ms Hackshaw complained that comments beneath a photo of Mr Kerridge, alongside another of someone else quoted in the article, implied they were his words.

The Society demanded, said the lawyer, an article of equal prominence correcting the position and presenting what she called a balanced and sympathetic view of the value and position of cats in the community. Otherwise compensation would be sought for an educative campaign.

Correspondence involving Ms Hackshaw, Listener editor Finlay Macdonald and the Press Council ensued, which at times centred on the way Mr Kerridge had gone about his complaint. In the end, however, the Listener asked the Council to adjudicate and rejected any suggestion that the Council try to mediate to reach a resolution between the parties.

For the Listener, Mr Macdonald defended the article to the Council. He said his readers were discerning sophisticates quite capable of distinguishing between self-reverential irony and content.

The phrase Ban The Cat! on the magazine’s cover was an economical and attention-grabbing way of explaining the secondary line, The Campaign To Control Pet Enemy Number One. In her coverage, Clifton had acknowledged that no political party would try to ban New Zealand’s most popular pet.

The editor said that the magazine stood by the article and its content completely. It was, in his view, balanced and factual, sparking only the complaint from the SPCA. Mr Kerridge – and others – had had letters to the editor published in subsequent issues of the magazine and in his published letter, the Auckland SPCA chief executive had not tried to clarify comments attributed to him in the article about the virtues, or otherwise, of keeping cats permanently indoors.

The New Zealand Press Council found it could not uphold the Auckland SPCA’s complaint. While there was no question about the sincerity of Mr Kerridge’s position, the Council said, the article had dealt with an issue of public interest. It had tried to ascertain the basis of the Forest and Bird Society’s campaign by looking at research into what kind of prey cats typically killed. That it chose not to rely on SPCA data was its right.

Further, while Council members could see how Mr Kerridge might feel his comments about cats living indoors was quoted out of context, the Council said that the way in which his remarks were used was, at worst, ambiguous. In its view, when read in the context of preceding paragraphs, the comments were quoted in a way apposite to the question Mr Kerridge acknowledged had been posed to him.

The Council also found, in relation to the part of the complaint dealing with use of the Auckland SPCA chief’s photograph, that the magazine had followed standard journalistic practice in using an illustration of someone quoted in the article. As a public figure, Mr Kerridge could expect that news outlets that quoted him would frequently use his photograph.

The complaint is, therefore, not upheld.

People with complaints against a magazine should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10-879 The Terrace, Wellington. Tel 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is available on the internet at www.presscouncil.org.nz