BISHOP DENIS BROWNE ON BEHALF OF THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF HAMILTON AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 1010

Council Meeting: MARCH 2005

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Taste Lack of
Accuracy

Bishop Denis Browne, on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, complained that an article, headline and photograph published in the Waikato Times, on November 6, 2004, seriously breached a number of what he called the paper’s obligations and duties.

The Press Council upholds the complaint in part.

The complaint concerned a weekend edition front-page banner pointing to the paper’s Inside Word column, intended to be a light-hearted, satirical look at an issue of the day. The article considered previously-reported papal concern about Italy’s low birthrate, in the context of a new Vatican-approved sex guide called “It’s A Sin Not To Do It”.

The column noted that while the Vatican might want Catholics to be more active sexually, this should be within the confines of marriage, and further attention might have been avoided had the banner not included a photograph of the Pope and been headed “GO FORTH AND FORNICATE”.

The first letters of protest, published on November 9, included one from the Hamilton Diocese communications advisor Judith Collins, who said fornication was seriously sinful and the Pope had never advocated it. She said presumably the intended word was procreate, which was used correctly in the column, and asked the paper to apologise and amend the error as soon as possible.

In a footnote to Ms Collins letter, with the introduction “Editor replies”, the editor responded, “You are quite right. Procreate would have been a better word for us to have used. Apologies”.

Bishop Browne said that response, and another footnote closing the correspondence, that repeated the apology and noted the Catholic community’s feelings, was totally inadequate. He invited the editor to present an “appropriate or substantive article” or editorial, saying the error concerned more than one word and disregarded “ordinary standards of decency”. The combined effect of the linkage of the photograph, the banner headline and the column was “grave, wrong, misleading and sensational” and none of the editor’s responses went close to addressing those issues.

The editor, in correspondence, acknowledged an embarrassing “bad error” but did not accept it was a serious breach of obligations and said the heading would have been accurate had “procreate” been used. He said the column’s “Go Forth and Multiply More” heading was accurate, and the apology at the end of Judith Collins’ letter was “extremely appropriate” because letters were very well read, there were others on the same issue and the error needed to be cleared up quickly.

The editor’s December 24 letter, responding to Bishop Browne’s complaint, said admitting an error in print was the most serious admission a paper could make and hurt its credibility. He said the power of apology should not be under-estimated and he was perplexed by references to the headline, sensationalism, insult, inaccuracies and untruths because the initial complaints from the diocese concerned only the use of the word “fornicate”. The editor said it was offensive to suggest the paper had discriminated against Catholics when it had begun a weekly “Your Faith” page and though Bishop Browne had every right to be angry, appropriate redress had been made.

The Press Council’s Statement of Principles says accuracy, fairness and balance should guide publications at all times; that headlines should be accurate and fair; and that care should be taken in selection and treatment of photographs. Though fairness and balance might not be essential to a satirical column, the accuracy of the front-page banner pointing to it is, and the complaint highlights the need for care in that regard. Banners are, in effect, headlines and should accordingly not be misleading or inaccurate.

Furthermore, the Press Council’s Statement of Principles says corrections should be prompt, given fair prominence and sometimes an apology and right of reply will be appropriate. Though in this case an apology was offered promptly, the question is whether it was adequate and sufficiently prominent.

The editor’s initial response said “procreate” would have been a better word, instead of acknowledging, in something more substantial than footnotes to letters, that “fornicate” was the wrong word. Though the editor said the misuse of “fornicate” was the result of someone misreading a dictionary it is hard to understand how anyone who checked could have made such an error. It is easier to believe that the difference between the words, and the significance of that difference, was simply not known nor appreciated.

Though some readers thought the column was wrong too, the issue there is taste, not accuracy. The intention was to write in a light vein, but some readers might well have thought that references to, among other things, the absence of “sexy nun centre centrefolds...” in the guide were anything but light.

Freedom of speech, however, includes the right to be insensitive and offensive, and while some might have seen the column as juvenile and not very funny, humour is subjective. Some of those who were upset might have emulated the Bishop’s decision to cancel his subscription, while others wrote letters to the editor, who conceded the paper had taken a “fair degree of flak” and learned a lot.

The Council acknowledges that, but upholds the complaint in part because the use of “fornicate” in a banner beside a photograph of the Pope with his arm extended, as if conferring a blessing, is such an egregious error that it demanded a better response than the initial footnote, and subsequent explanations that “fornicate” had been misinterpreted.

The editor’s reluctance to take up Bishop Browne’s invitation to publish an appropriate article or editorial is understandable, from the perspective of the editorial prerogative to decide what is or is not published.

Some on the Council questioned the editor’s decision, on grounds of commercial viability, to delete a sentence from the Bishop’s letter saying he was choosing not to subscribe to the paper, and predicting others would do likewise. But because the prediction was effectively a footnote to the Bishop’s letter, not the main point, and because letters to the editor are routinely edited, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.

Despite Bishop Browne’s view that “the whole saga should now carry the headline FORNIGATE”, the rest of the complaint is not upheld. The Council saw no intent by the newspaper to deceive, discriminate, mislead or deliberately antagonise.

The complaint is part-upheld as to the inadequacy of the apology.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Murray Williams, Keith Lees and Terry Snow.