Following a complaint to the NZ Press Council that this newspapers’ August 18th front page article ‘Where are all the birds?’ had incited fear in the 1080 debate, the council adjudicated in favour of the paper, stating: “ ... newspapers are entitled to encourage debate on issues of interest and importance to their own community – indeed they have a responsibility to undertake that role.”
The complaint was made by Thomas Everth, Coromandel. We publish the adjudication in full:
ADJUDICATION BY THE NEW ZEALAND PRESS COUNCIL ON THE COMPLAINT OF THOMAS EVERTH AGAINST PENINSULA PRESS
Thomas Everth complained about an editorial published in the Peninsula Press (a Coromandel community newspaper) on August 18, 2011.
He cited those principles of the Press Council that refer to accuracy, fairness and balance and to maintaining a distinction between the reporting of facts and the passing of opinion.
His complaint is not upheld.
Headlined “Where are all the birds?” the piece took a highly critical stance against the use of 1080 poison in NZ forests.
In particular, it stressed the dangers of “sublethal contamination” where even if wildlife is not killed outright, the low-level contaminants may create longer term, harmful effects on animal and insect development and reproduction.
It dominated the front page and continued to feature strongly on page three.
The “editorial article” was published under a by line giving the editor’s name.
A footnote stated that it had been written as a “front page editorial” in an attempt “to get to the known ‘facts’ about the controversial pesticide programme” and said that the newspaper welcomed further debate.
Mr Everth initially complained to the editor (and author of the piece) by telephone and then via a series of e-mails. He accused the editor of “inciting fear and fanning the flames of an already heated 1080 debate”.
In particular, he took issue with the notion that 1080 interfered with and disrupted the endocrine system of wildlife and instead stressed the need for predator control (via 1080) in NZ forests.
He sent the newspaper a scientific research paper which rebutted the allegations that 1080 was an endocrine disrupter.
He suggested that the newspaper owed readers an apology for the “lies and the exaggeration and the baseless scare-mongering”.
When the editor offered Mr Everth the opportunity to write an article opposing and counter-balancing the arguments raised in the editorial, he declined.
As any apology and/or retraction was not forthcoming, he made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
Here, he stressed that the piece was irresponsible, especially given the possibility of violence by anti-1080 activists in the local community
The complainant reiterated his various claims that the newspaper had published “outright lies and made up conjecture” and that the editor’s prevailing argument was a reversal of “the facts”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor readily accepted that 1080 poisoning was a contentious issue but he had tried to foster healthy discussion, and when Mr Everth complained, he had offered him considerable space for a counter argument, a 1,000 word reply.
He suggested that the complainant’s vigorous reaction to the editorial exemplified the intense feeling (on both sides) inherent in the 1080 debate.
He denied that the editorial was written to support the pig-hunting lobby which was opposed to the use of 1080 poison.
He added that his original offer to Mr Everth, of space in the newspaper to air his “facts”, remained open.
Discussion and Decision:
In summary, the complainant argues that the editorial was not based on sound science and thus misled its readers, and further, that its publication was irresponsible, given the entrenched positions held in the local community.
The Press Council acknowledges the research forwarded by Mr Everth but the Council cannot adjudicate on the accuracy of competing claims surrounding the use of 1080 poison. Each “side” attacks the science and research cited by the opposition.
In 2009, the Council noted “Readers wanting to investigate the veracity of the claims and counter-claims about 1080 would be wise to read widely on the issue rather than rely on the content of one article”.
As far as the second part of his argument is concerned, the Press Council takes a different view and stresses that newspapers are entitled to encourage debate on issues of interest and importance to their own community – indeed they have a responsibility to undertake that role.
The Council is of the view that more could have been done to stress that this front page piece was in fact an editorial and thus opinion right from the outset, though it noted it was termed “editorial” both within the text and at the end.
However, the editor’s claim that he was trying to stimulate discussion about an important local issue was supported by a footnote which clearly signalled that further comment would be welcomed.
Another signpost that the debate would continue was given – readers were told that a Ministry of Agriculture response to the editorial would be published later. That response duly appeared, in the newspaper’s Comment and Opinion page, the following week.
The complainant was given the chance to compose a response countering the editor’s opinions, and at some length, but he declined.
Finally, the Press Council has often upheld the right of an editor to adopt a strong stance and advocate a particular position; in short, to advance their own point of view.
Inevitably, some will disagree with that stance, even be offended by the opinions expressed or by how they were expressed, but that is an inherent aspect of freedom of speech.
Of course, there would be grounds for complaint if the editorial contained grievous errors of fact, or deliberately misled or misinformed readers. But, as noted above, the Council is simply unable to determine the “facts” in this ongoing debate, and it can see no evidence at all of any deliberate or wilful attempt to mislead or misinform.
The complaint is not upheld:
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.