TONY SMITH AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 1045

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Introduction
Ian Findlay and Tony Smith, in separate complaints, complained that an editorial published in Hawkes Bay Today on Friday September 16, was not fair or balanced, and sought to mislead readers because it was clearly identified as an editorial and was timed to deny readers a right of reply. Four other complaints were received but have not been pursued. The complaints are not upheld.

Background
The single column item which prompted the complaints was headed “Why this Govt should go”. Although the paper began by-lining editorials a year ago the piece in question ran on the front page under a small WE SAY banner the day before the election.

The Basis of the Complaints
Both complainants said the editorial was timed to deny public feedback because no letters in response could be published on election day. They said this failed to meet the requirements of the first of the council’s 13 Principles by making no attempt to be fair or balanced.

Mr Smith acknowledged Principle seven gave editors a right to take a forthright stance and advocate a position, but said that did not over-ride their obligations in regard to fairness and balance.

He said the banner, and the position of the item, did not make it clear it was an editorial, and in a September 19 letter to the Press Council, he said this breached the principle that readers should not be misled or misinformed by commission or omission.

In a letter to the editor on September 18 – he said the editorial’s language was “overwhelmingly emotional”, transparently urging readers to vote National and making no attempt to analyse Labour’s performance or give any rationale for its “vitriolic attacks”.

Mr Smith, who said he was an un-decided voter and objected to the editor’s assumption he was a Labour Party supporter, also suggested the timing was intended to prevent “a subsequent retraction enforced by the Press Council”.




The Newspaper’s Response
The editor told the complainants and the Council he knew of no rule requiring editorial comment to be fair or balanced, or for a requirement to take both sides, even when considering a complex issue.

Most of the points had been aired in previous editorials and the bewilderment about the status of the opinion piece as an editorial had “largely been disingenuous”.
However, to rule out the possibility of ambiguity future “WE SAY” front-page editorials would be labelled as such.

The editor said the paper supported no political party and had taken a deep breath and courted unpopularity out of “passionate, rational frustration with government policies”.

He said he reserved the right to invoke a convention that committed the paper to a point of view and decided run the editorial on September 16 because his “politically uncompromising stand” was so unusual other news media would have picked it up had it run earlier.

The complaints directly challenged the principle of freedom of speech and the editor said if they succeeded that would effectively impose restrictions on what might be said, where and when it could be said, and on who was entitled to say it.


Conclusion
Mr Findlay said his complaint had nothing to do with freedom of the press and would not have been made if the editorial had been published earlier and on the leader page.

And Mr Smith said the key point of his complaint was that the obligations of the first of the 13 principles were not totally over-ridden by the rights protected by the seventh.
He said it was clear the editor disagreed and he sought a ruling on the point.

Finding
The Press Council has always said freedom of speech -and the right to adopt a forthright stance and advocate a position are matters on which editors can stand, or fall, which is why previous complaints about the content of editorials have not been upheld, unless they contain factual errors, or mislead or misinform.

Although the complainants said the timing and placement and the WE SAY heading did mislead and misinform, the Council considered most readers would known that what followed was an editorial.

The editor is entitled to advance his point of view when he chooses -- for example, it is not uncommon for newspapers in countries like England to do so just before an election.
.
Nevertheless, the timing invited the sceptical response it received from some readers and that scepticism was likely to have been heightened by the explanation for deciding to publish on the Friday.

Instead of saying it was up to him to decide when and where editorials were published the editor said he had left it till the last day to avoid attracting attention, and the risk of being seen as “darling by National Party supporters”.

By deciding not to allow an opportunity for response, and by responding in a sometimes intemperate manner to the complainants, the editor is also entitled to run the risk of alienating or losing readers, as well as being seen as something he says he is not.

For the reasons given above, the complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Murray Williams and John Gardner.