D ILLINGWORTH AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 719

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 1998

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

The New Zealand Press Council has declined to uphold a complaint against The Press of Christchurch by a Lyttelton reader Mr D.Illingworth.

Mr Illingworth took issue with an editorial published in early September that traversed the situation in which about 20 Russian seamen found themselves when their trawlers were confiscated by the New Zealand Government over breaches of fisheries quota.
There had originally been a much larger number that had dwindled to 20.

The editorial suggested that neither the ships’ owner nor the Government were without blame, but that the seamen’s ordeal as recipients of charity had gone on too long and that their departure, by taking up the Government offer to fly them home, was overdue.

Further correspondence between reader and newspaper ensued, with one letter from The Press to Mr Illingworth’s initial complaint not reaching him. Believing he’d been ignored, Mr Illingworth came to the Press Council. In a later letter he said the seamen were thoroughly decent men placed in an appalling situation. Far from being bludgers, they had displayed great courage.

The editor in his response to the Council, defended the paper’s editorial. Mr Illingworth’s view that the judgment expressed was callous was a matter of opinion and unjustifiably extreme, he said. The editor also rejected as incorrect, and unsubstantiated Mr Illingworth’s view that the editorial was trying to illegally influence the imminent court hearing.

He also said Mr Illingworth had misconstrued the editorial which had never
questioned the seamen’s decency and never called them bludgers. The editor argued the media had a right, and indeed, were expected to comment on issues of the day in their editorial columns. If they chose, tradition and convention allowed them to do so in robust terms.

The editorial was largely, the Council said, a succinct well-argued summary of the events that had led to the stranding of the Russian seamen at Lyttelton. The editorial’s view of the men’s plight and its advice as to their future, amounted to legitimate comment on a matter of clear public interest.