DONALD BETHUNE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2117
Council Meeting: JUNE 2010
Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Comment and Fact
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
The weekly column by John Roughan was published on April 10, 2010, under the heading, Little sympathy for middle-age angst, and a sub-heading Ageing activist Peter Bethune should cut the antics and enjoy a much improved world.
In the column, Roughan noted the recent history of Peter Bethune, which included a world circumnavigation attempt aboard his motor trimaran that ended with an incident with a skiff off Guatemala during which a fisherman died.
Subsequently, on January 6, 2010, the trimaran, renamed Ady Gil, was rammed by a Japanese whaler in the Southern Ocean.
The columnist said he had not watched the ramming incident on video closely. Six weeks later, Peter Bethune jet-skied to the same whaler, boarding it with the intention of making a citizen’s arrest of the captain for sinking his boat.
“Predictably,” Roughan wrote, the captain arrested Bethune and turned him over to Japanese police when the vessel returned to Tokyo where he was charged with assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property and obstruction of business.
In his comments on the chain of events, Roughan said he found it “difficult to care” that Bethune had been locked in a Japanese jail.
“If someone wants to hurtle around a working ship with the expressed intention of getting in the way of its operations I don’t have much difficulty deciding where fault lies. If he had been deliberately rammed, it had obviously been done in a way that ensured there need be no loss of life.”
Roughan surmised that “Bethune is probably content to stay where he is for a while, drawing continuing attention for his cause.”
Later in the column, he wrote: “Immature acts of protest were once confined to the young. Bethune is 44. Like the saboteurs of the Waihopai spy base, he is simply too old for sympathy.
“The protest movement is coming into its dotage and a few of its members have gained nothing from the passage of time. Possibly, they are feeling the march of mortality and can see too little improvement in the world. If so, they’re in a different world from mine.”
Roughan said most species of whales have been saved from threat of extinction by International Whaling Commission convenants “disgracefully defied by Japan, Norway and very few others. To risk life or resort to vandalism in protest that progress is less than perfect, is neither admirable nor defensible. Bethune deserves to experience the gentle, ego-challenging influences of Japan for a good while yet.”
In his complaint Don Bethune said there were many inaccuracies in the column, some on matters of fact but most on “denigrating innuendos.”
It was wrong for the headline to say Peter Bethune deserved no sympathy because he was driven by old age and angst, which was a “neurotic anxiety.” Most responsible people could empathise with a commitment to a moral cause that justified risks to your own well-being.
He believed the headline encouraged readers to believe Peter did not deserve sympathy or respect and that he was past his best, which was the opposite of the truth.
Mr Bethune was critical of Roughan saying he had not watched the ramming incident closely on television. It was the columnist’s obligation to keep himself informed.
Roughan was also wrong when he said the whaler had no intention of ramming the Ady Gil. Video showed water cannon blasting the Ady Gil’s deck with crew standing on it, and had there been any crew inside the vessel as the whaler sliced through it, they would have been killed instantly. To write of “ensuring safety” was inaccurate.
The reference to the protest movement “coming into its dotage” and another reference to time passing encouraged readers to think his son was “old, middle-aged and dumb” which was an underhand way to denigrate an astute and dedicated Kiwi.
Mr Bethune listed his son’s achievements with technology, biofuels, shipping design and gaining the world circumnavigation record after the earlier fatal incident with the unlit skiff off Guatemala had led to the first attempt being abandoned.
References to vandalism and Bethune deserving the “ego-challenging influences” of Japan were part of a litany of negative innuendos and inaccuracies reflecting Roughan’s ignorance of what he was writing about, or an intention to denigrate regardless of accuracy.
The column had hurt him deeply.
The Newspaper’s Response
In his response initially to Mr Bethune, deputy editor David Hastings said that the Herald understood that Peter’s predicament must be distressing to family and friends.
Responding to the Council, the deputy editor said the complainant was deeply upset by the criticism of his son and “understandably would prefer to see Pete Bethune hailed as a hero rather than criticised in such strong terms.
“Unfortunately, he does not seem prepared to grasp the point that someone who courts controversy through their public actions cannot expect they will be immune from scrutiny and criticism.”
Further, Mr Bethune did not see the difference between fact and opinion. All the points complained of were not inaccuracies but different interpretations of the facts.
Though hard-hitting, the column was well within the bounds of acceptable public discussion.
The Press Council accepts that the column would have been upsetting for Mr Bethune, particularly since his son was incarcerated in Japan and facing an uncertain future.
The columnist’s opinions are strongly expressed, and he makes assumptions that Mr Bethune has challenged.
But in the case of an opinion column, a higher threshold for complaint applies. The Council has said repeatedly that columnists are entitled to express opinions strongly, as long as their opinions are based on fact.
While Mr Bethune disputes what was written in some instances, and criticises what he calls innuendo, where differences arise between the columnist and the complainant, they are based on interpretation of facts.
Comments on interpretations of facts may be unfair, based on a lack of awareness or appreciation of the full story or even appear to some readers to be ignorant, but that does not make the comments incorrect or unworthy of being expressed.
All newsworthy events are interpreted according to the beliefs and understandings of readers or viewers. Nobody in the public eye, as Peter Bethune undoubtedly is, should be surprised when people regard their actions differently to their own beliefs.
The column clearly hurt Mr Bethune but that does not make it wrong.
The complaint is not upheld by a majority of seven members to two.
Pip Bruce Ferguson and Stephen Stewart dissented on the grounds of accuracy. They acknowledged that the column was an opinion piece. However, they argued that, as the columnist had admitted he “didn't watch [the video of the collision] closely” he could not then claim that the collision “had obviously been done in a way that ensured there need be no loss of life.”
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.