ANDREA BARNS AGAINST RUAPEHU PRESS

Case Number: 766

Council Meeting: December 1999

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Ruapehu Press

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

Correspondents to newspapers can write letters to the editor with strong opinions and even heated views, but they expect these exchanges to take place only in the columns of the newspaper and not on their doorstep. It was this concern that led Andrea Barns to complain to the Press Council about the publication of her full address with a letter she wrote to the Ruapehu Press..

The letter headed "Shoppers bombarded by porn - Mum" appeared in the Ruapehu Press, a community newspaper published at Taumarunui, in September this year (the issue is undated in the complaint). In this letter, the writer expressed reservations about the visibility of pornographic publications in ordinary retail outlets such as New Zealand Post shops and gas stations or garages, and the easy access to them. Her own circumstances, and her sensitivity to any personally intrusive adverse reaction to her comments, led her to ask for precautions about her address details.

This was the first letter Andrea Barns had written to this newspaper for publication and she went to some trouble in advance to spell out her concerns to the newspaper, and how readers responding should contact her through the medium of the publication. In her published letter, the writer simply invited readers who shared her concern to get in touch. She says in her complaint that the instruction for letters to be forwarded through the newspaper was attached to her letter, although not in the text for publication. She was very upset to see her full address published with her letter and complained to the editor and to the Press Council.

In response to the complaint, the editor disagrees that Ms Barns wrote any instructions on the bottom of her letter, although the original letter as supporting evidence had been discarded when the correspondent rang the newspaper with her complaint some time after publication. The practice of discarding letters from readers so quickly would seem dangerous and unacceptable. Apart from good record-keeping, it leaves a publication unprotected in the case where evidence is needed to resolve editorial or legal disputes which may arise over a longer period.

The editor agrees Andrea Barns spoke in advance with the newspaper's manager Mrs Janine Logan who advised that instructions should be written on the letter. However, the editor disagrees there were any instructions about the publication of Andrea Barns's address on the eventual letter, on the grounds that these would have been drawn to Mrs Logan's attention, and he would have questioned them at the time the letter to the editor was typed into the computer. He notes the strict editorial policy of publishing letters with the name and correct address of the author.

At the same time, he points out that this writer's name and address are in the local phone book, and in that respect regarded the original direct complaint to the paper as frivolous.

The factual dispute of whether there were instructions on the bottom of Ms Barns's letter is at the heart of the dispute. Despite the editor's avowal that there were no instructions from Andrea Barns, her detailed outline of her efforts to prepare the ground in advance suggests she remembers correctly what she did. In the absence of the letter in question, her version of events is accepted.

Then there is the question of the address. The fact she was happy to have the district address "Taumarunui" published would have fitted in with what it appears the paper will publish. The editor asserts that no letters are printed without the name and correct address of the author, but then the newspaper's variations in the manner of publishing letter writers' addresses should be clarified -- "Gordon Wakelin, Kururau Rd, Taumarunui" in one case, "Andrea Barns, Taumarunui" in another, although not for the letter which is the subject of the complaint. In many publications a small "Advice to correspondents" box setting out publication policy is common on the letters page.

A "Letters to the editor" page can be one of the most spirited sections of a publication. However, editors should help to confine this lively trade in beliefs and ideas to the newspaper pages, by treating any special concerns letter writers have about their identity or their whereabouts with a proper seriousness. This is already done in some circumstances, as with names and addresses withheld by request from letters dealing with sensitive matters such as sexual abuse or suicide, for example.

This complaint does not fall into the same category, but there is cause for concern. When a letter writer expresses some anxiety in advance about not having her full address published, an editor should pay more careful attention than usual. The context is all important -- the subject of the letter, the circumstances of the letter writer, the circulation of the publication, the neighbourhood to whom the letter is addressed -- and goes to how an otherwise protected correspondent to a newspaper might feel about being potentially the subject of harassment. The editor, after all, has the final right to decline publication if the conditions the correspondent wants are unacceptable.

Publications are entitled to ask for full address details, including a phone number, for use in the case of a follow-up or the need to check the bona fides of a correspondent. These can be recorded, but do not necessarily need to be published.

A well-constructed Letters to the Editor page will always be a magnet for readers, but any fears correspondents express about having their location revealed should be weighed up carefully. The complainant was entitled to more consideration of her request to the Ruapehu Press than she received. Claiming that her name and address were in the phone book and on the back of the envelope she used as one justification for the paper's actions, and disagreeing that any instructions existed as another, is not a satisfactory response.

The complaint is upheld