H.EVISON AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 789

Council Meeting: July 2000

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Editorial Discretion
Accuracy

The Press Council has upheld one element of a complaint by Dr Harry Evison concerning alterations made by The Press newspaper to an article that he had prepared for the paper's Millennium Review.
According to Dr Evison, the paper made a number of significant alterations to the text which were not put to him to check for accuracy, and so put his standing as an historian at risk. And subsequently, he claimed, the paper refused to publish his disclaimer of parts of the article, except as a letter to the Editor limited to 150 words.
Dr Evison said that he was only once consulted by a representative of the Press over a detail in his text. Yet when the article finally appeared it contained several alterations ranging from bad grammar and verbal infelicities to one major factual error and some deletions of words and punctuation which either altered the sense of what he wished to say or cast doubt on his knowledge.The effects of the changes were vexatious and potentially injurious to his reputation.
Letters to the editor, he said, were labeled 'opinion' but the alterations of which he complained were matters of fact, not of opinion. He asked then that his objections be printed, not as a letter of 150 words, but as a correction to the text printed in the Millennium Review. The Council did not accept Dr Evison's distinction on letters-to-the-editor column.
In his response to the Press Council, the editor of The Press said that it had been assumed that Dr Evison, from his past dealings with the paper, would be well aware of the editing processes to which articles would normally be subject. He rejected Dr Evison's argument about the status of the letters page. Many items published there were regarded by their authors as statements of fact. He provided several pages from past editions of The Press containing letters from Dr Evison which, he said, dealt with matters of fact. Dr Evison had claimed that it was not possible to express his objections in 150 words, but the newspaper had provided him with a precis of that length which in their view adequately expressed his position.
Dr Evison replied that he did not object to normal sub-editing, but that surely did not permit erroneous changes. He listed among such changes a false statement about the Ngai Tahu Claim Settlement Act 1944, the inclusion of Finland in the grouping of Scandinavian countries to which it does not belong, and its deletion from countries where the Sami people had made land claims. His duty as an historian was to see that any changes The Press made in the text were correct.
He rejected the editor's claim that its 150 word precis covered the essence of his disclaimer since it did not mention his disapproval of the changes made. His chief concern was that The Press had introduced the mistakes in the first place with the result that they were attributed to him. A correction however succinct would never remedy this harm since the article in its present form would remain in libraries, schools and homes for all to see.
To this, the Editor of the Press responded that the changes were those normally carried out in the process of sub-editing. There was no conscious concealment of the fact that the article contained material that Dr Evison had not written or agreed to.
He then went on to analyze the alterations complained of. He conceded that The Press had been wrong in a statement it had added to Dr Evison's text about the 1944 Ngai Tahu Claim Settlement Act. But he made little of the grammatical points complained of. He defended the removal of comparisons that Dr Evison had made between the attitudes of Maori men and those of English noblemen, Christians, Jews and Moslems. He upheld the removal of inverted commas from words to which Dr Evison had applied them in order to register his distaste for their use. And he said that there was doubt about Dr Evison's statements on the Sami people and his insistence that Finland was not part of Scandinavia.
All in all, he contended, the changes made in sub-editing were justifiable, and essentially so trivial as not to alter Dr Evison's text in any substantial way. They could hardly be considered to reflect adversely on his reputation and they had not drawn comment from anyone but him.
The Press was prepared to let Dr Evison have his say about the handling of his article provided it was by way of a letter, but was not prepared to open the newspaper's general columns for him to attack them on points about which they disagreed.
During discussion of the complaint, members of the Press Council felt that Dr Evison was on weak grounds in rejecting the offer of space in the letters column and that the 150 word limit, though tight, would have given him scope to register his more substantial objections.
At the same time, they felt that The Press should have paid more regard to what he had written, given his standing as an historian, his known concern for factual accuracy, his studies of indigenous peoples and his travels to Finland. The Press had admitted that it had made one incorrect addition to his text. It was not trivial, as the Editor suggested, to remove the comparisons Evison had deliberately included so as not to appear to single Maori out for adverse comment. Nor was it trivial to remove inverted commas designed to indicate his scepticism about the use of particular words, 'savages' for instance. And if there was doubt about his references to Sami and the proper designation of Finland that was good reason to consult him rather than make changes that were then themselves open to doubt.
In the Press Council's view, the Press would have acted more fairly and efficiently had it discussed the alterations it proposed with Dr Evison. In that respect the complaint was upheld.
For his own part Dr Evison would have done better had he been willing to use the letters column to express at least the more important of his objections.

The Council suggested that more elasticity on both sides might have helped resolve the deadlock. It noted that The Press remained willing to print a disclaimer by Dr Evison and recommended that it now make a special effort to accommodate his concerns.