Case Number: 896

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

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

Mr Wayne Church has complained to the Press Council about the non-publication of a letter he submitted to Hawke’s Bay Today. His letter criticised the paper’s editorial about a speech by the Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright commenting on the issue of smacking children.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

Mr Church’s grounds for complaint were that in his view the explanation for non-publication was unsatisfactory and other letters were published, that there was a personal and unwarranted attack on the Governor-General and that the editorial exceeded the bounds of fair and balanced journalism and good taste.

The editorial is clearly understood to be a newspaper’s opinion on any topic it chooses to editorialise about, and can be strongly worded as in this case, support a particular view, take sides or advocate a certain course. The editorial in question fell clearly within the bounds of that acceptable practice, whatever any readers’ opinion of it.

On the non-publication of the letter, once again the Press Council can only reinforce its previous decisions to support the prerogative of editors to include or reject letters, being guided by "fairness, balance and public interest in the correspondents’ views" as per Principle 12 of the Statement of Principles.

The Press Council’s 2001 annual report discussed Letters to the Editor at length, describing the selection process and reasons for rejection and editing, such as legal and space constraints, clarity and topicality, which may be of some help to interested parties.

This is Mr Church's fifth complaint to the Press Council about non-publication of letters, even though he does have letters appear in the paper from time to time. Succeeding editors have been more than patient with Mr Church in their explanations for non-publication, citing variously intemperate language, length, repetitiveness or that the topic has been covered by other correspondents.

While Mr Church raises the issue of censorship and feels treated differently from correspondents whose letters were published, he joins the on-average 60 percent of correspondents to a newspaper who remain unpublished. And when it comes to readers trying to get letters in the paper, arguments about the Bill of Rights and freedom of expression, or specious reasoning that publication of one letter requires publication of all, will not win the day.

Sound editorial judgement that weighs up, selects, digests and edits the news and opinion for the best result for the community of readers is at the heart of good journalistic publishing. A morass of unselected material would deter readers and kill a newspaper. And in the end, pleas for total freedom for every stated opinion to be printed will run up against that most fundamental of publishing axioms: there isn’t enough room.

The complaint is not upheld.