Case Number: 797

Council Meeting: August 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Westport News

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Terry Sumner, a well known opponent of the continued logging of West Coast native forests, about the letters to the editor policy of his local newspaper the Westport News.

Mr Sumner's main objection was that the paper was publishing letters from supporters of continued logging which, in his view, represented an incitement to violence against opponents like himself. But he also expressed concern that by refusing to allow use of a nom de plume the paper was suppressing free debate on issues such as logging because potential letter writers were afraid of intimidation. Mr Sumner provided samples of the sort of letters he was concerned about. All contained references to the prospect of cutting down trees occupied by anti-logging protesters. One, for instance, said, "Please give me a chain saw if a Green is up any trees in areas being sustainably logged."
Similar inflammatory material published in the Westport News had, he said, preceded acts of violence, including the poisoning of plants in a well known conservationist's garden and the theft of his own bicycle from a garage. The paper was behaving irresponsibly in continuing to run letters which created a climate conducive to violence and personal abuse.
In his response to the Press Council the editor agreed that the paper had allowed the debate over West Coast logging to "rage on." The Westport News had run hard-hitting letters from both sides over the years, including some from Mr Sumner, but this was the first time there had been a complaint. The letters specifically objected to were certainly forceful but that was at least in part the fault of Mr Sumner himself for writing a letter comparing those in favour of logging to mercenary soldiers.

The editor said he did not consider the letters to represent an incitement to violence. Rather they were a safety warning to people not to trespass into operational logging areas. They also contained
tongue-in-cheek comments which should not be taken seriously. There was indeed a climate of resentment towards Greens like Mr Sumner, the editor said, but that had been caused by the Government decision to halt logging, at the Green's behest, not by letter writing. The paper strongly supported freedom of speech, sometimes in the face of criticism by locals that it gave Greens too much publicity, and it would continue to take that approach.

The council acknowledged that newspapers do have to exercise discretion over what they publish on topics and in communities where passions are inflamed. But they also have an obligation to allow free debate on issues of importance. The letters complained of by Mr Sumner were hard-hitting, but they did not go too far and could not be said to represent an actual incitement to violence, although the editor was being a little disingenuous in suggesting the comments were intended as safety advice. In addition, Mr Sumner must take some responsibility for the vigour of the debate, having made some decidedly provocative remarks himself.

The council was inclined to agree with the editor that any anger on the part of pro-logging West Coasters was more likely to be due to having lost the battle than the result of seeing their views
expressed in print. Indeed, by allowing people wide latitude to express their opinions, the paper could be seen as providing a safety valve.

The council also supported the paper's stance in declining to allow letters to be written anonymously. The vast majority of newspapers now required correspondents to demonstrate that they had the courage of their convictions by publishing their names. No doubt that requirement did from time to time inhibit people from expressing their views, the council said. But the newspaper was doing its job by making the opportunity available and it was up to individuals to decide if they wished to use it.