JASON MARSDEN AGAINST MEDIAWORKS

Case Number: 2646

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Mediaworks

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Photographs

Overview

On November 21,2017 Newshub published an online article under the heading “Gun policy expert likens Kiwi gun laws to United States”. The item was based on comment by Philip Alpers, a Sydney-based academic and advocate for gun control who argues a gun register should be re-established in New Zealand to help tackle gun-related crime. It drew two complaints.

The Complaint

Mike Loder complained that the article breached Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance. Jason Marsden complained the article breached Principle 6: Headlines and captions; and Principle 11: Photographs and graphics.

Mr Loder complained Mr Alpers had been allowed to “cherry pick some isolated and deceptive data” by citing police statistics on firearms stolen and recovered in the years to 2016 to show numbers were rising. He questioned why the figures for 2017 were not mentioned as these showed a downturn.

He said the article inaccurately reported rising levels of gun related crime when police statistics over the 20 years to 2014 showed numbers of gun murders and other measures showed levels that were unchanged despite a rise in population.

Mr Loder also said the article lacked balance in that it did not report on criminal activity including gun theft, imports, removal of serial numbers; criminal sentencing; or that Canada had recently stopped its gun registration programme.

Mr Marsden complained the heading and accompanying photo were likely to mislead the general public and cause undue concern.He said Mr Alpers was not an expert on gun policy, was not able to articulate a fair overview of the subject, had been found to be incorrect in the past and was “considered at the extreme end of the gun control movement.”

He also argued the accompanying image of a pistol indicated that laws relating to pistol ownership in New Zealand were similar to the United States, when New Zealand had extremely stringent requirements around pistols.

Mr Marsden forwarded a lengthy item published on the Australian and New Zealand Sporting Shooter Association web sites citing instances where Mr Alpers had allegedly stepped “outside the bounds of due academic rigor to promote a singular view of firearms policy.” This was in the nature of an attack on Mr Alpers’ credibility and the Press Council set it aside as it was not directly relevant to the complaints about theNewshub article.

The Response

Mediaworks broadcasting standards manager, Robert Dowd, said the article did not cite statistics for the year to 2017 as those figures were not available at the time the article was written.

While he did not accept Mr Loder’s conclusion that there had been a reduction in the number of illegal arms at large, it had removed Mr Alper’s claim that more guns were in the hands of criminals. It had also removed the statement that New Zealand had rising levels of gun related crime.

The article had included contextualising and balancing information (noting that gun-related offences had declined since 2014, for example) and had included comment from by Council of Licensed Firearms Owners spokesperson Nicole McKee.

Mr Dowd said matters which Mr Loder said should have been covered - such as gun theft and importation, criminal sentencing and Canada’s decision to stop gun registrations - were beyond the scope of the article.This was a matter of editorial discretion rather than balance.

However, as mentioned above, the article was amended after several shortcomings were identified.

Mr Dowd said it was not misleading to describe Mr Alpers as a gun policy expert. He is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and his principal area of research is gun policy. He may be a gun control advocate but this did not preclude him from being a gun policy expert.

Newshub shared Mr Marsden’s concern about the use of the stock image of a pistol and replaced it with a firearm more apposite to the New Zealand context.

The Decision

The Newshub article is based on a call by gun control advocate and Sydney-based academic Philip Alpers that New Zealand should register firearms.

The item mentions that private gun sales can go unreported and reports Mr Alpers as saying that the establishment of a register is the only way to tackle gun-related crime. It also reports briefly on various police statistics on firearms seizures, gun-related murders and gun-related offences.

The article includes comment by Council of Licensed Firearms Owners spokesperson Nicole McKee that gun registration proved to be ineffective in the past, re-establishing a register would be very expensive for little result and her argument was that improving firearm security would be more effective.

Newshub has acknowledged its original report was incorrect when it was stated there were rising levels of gun-related crime. This matter was corrected after the error was pointed out by Mr Loder. But this was a key fact that should have been checked before publication and left it open to the claim it was not balanced.

That aside there is no indication that this article “cherry picked” data to make a misleading case. Clearly the figures for gun seizures in 2017 could not have been included as they were not available at the time the article was published.

The article included comment from a credible alternative voice to balance Mr Alpers’ opinions and the fact that it did not cover all the arguments raised by Mr Loder does not mean it lacked balance.

The Press Council does not believe the headline was inaccurate in describing Mr Alpers as a gun policy expert.The University of Sydney website lists him as an adjunct associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health. He is described as the founding director of GunPolicy.org, a global project which compares armed violence, firearm injury prevention and gun law across 350 jurisdictions worldwide.

He is also a gun control advocate and, as such, he has even been labelled “extreme” – although that may be from a US perspective where any talk of gun control is considered by many as beyond the pale.

It is not unusual, or improper, for people with expertise on specialist subjects to also be strong advocates for their views. For example, there is a long history of doctors leading the way in calling for sometimes unpopular or controversial actions to curb smoking, reduce alcohol consumption or limit the sale of junk foods. What may have been regarded as strong or even extreme views have in time been accepted as correct.

Newshub acknowledged Mr Marsden’s concerns about the pistol image and replaced it with a stock image of a rifle because New Zealand’s stringent laws on the registration of pistols is clearly very different from US gun laws. The point was conceded and as stated above Newshub also corrected the article.

However, Mediaworks’ claim that some of the issues raised by the complainants were “not within the scope of the article” does not really address the requirement for balance.

More care should have been taken but the Press Council credits publications which promptly respond to legitimate complaints and make corrections where appropriate. The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.