LA LECHE LEAGUE NEW ZEALAND AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2263
Council Meeting: JUNE AND AUGUST 2012
Verdict: Upheld in Part
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
The complaints related to 23 articles or items published between February 5 and February 19 of which 10 were published in the Herald on Sunday and 13 were published in the New Zealand Herald. A March 18 article in the Herald on Sunday was added later.
The League noted that some articles included with their complaint were unobjectionable, but were included to provide an accurate perception of context.
Complaints about coverage in the Herald on Sunday are the subject of a separate ruling.
The complaint is upheld in part.
The Health Sponsorship Council (HSC) commissioned a 30 second anti-smoking commercial which was to be shown on television. It featured Piri Weepu explaining how having a smoke free house and a smoke free car was important to him and his children.
The commercial included a brief shot (2 seconds) of Weepu bottle-feeding his daughter.
The HSC forewarned the La Leche League (LLL) about the bottle-feeding and sent a copy to LLL.
Once Alison Stanton, the Director of LLLNZ, had viewed the commercial, she wrote (31/1/2012) to the HSC pointing out that “images of bottle-feeding strongly negate messages promoting breast-feeding”, and suggested that there were other ways “a father can be portrayed interacting with his baby”, in order not to undermine an important health message – the normality of breast-feeding.
She recommended that the short segment at issue be removed.
There was no criticism in her letter of Weepu or his fathering practice, neither explicit nor implied.
Stanton also consulted with various people and groups about how to reply to the HSC.
One contact was the Coordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service. The co-ordinator circulated an e-mail message to organisations likely to take a keen interest in the matter, such as the Infant Feeding Association and the NZ College of Midwives, suggesting that HSC should be contacted to request removal of the bottle-feeding clip.
It seems that 67 such e-mails were sent within a very short time, possibly 24 hours.
The next day (1/2/2012) the HSC CEO, Iain Potter, wrote to LLL (and others) stating that the commercial would be re-edited to replace the bottle shot with other footage of Weepu interacting with his children. He was very critical of the role played by some members of LLL.
On 5/2/2012 the Herald’s “sister” paper, the weekly Herald On Sunday, reported the late decision to cut that segment with a front page pointer “Piri’s bottle ban – All Black dad warned: Breast is best”; an article headed “Piri’s baby bottle ad ban”; and an editorial headed “Too much fuss over a bottle boob”.
The NZ Herald carried a report on 6/2/12 which compared the story with Facebook’s ban on hundreds of breastfeeding photographs and a section entitled “Best of the Web” requested readers to send their opinions. A sample of readers’ views was accompanied by a cheek-to-cheek photograph of Weepu and his baby, captioned “La Leche’s complaint led to Piri Weepu’s tender moment being cut”.
Over the following two weeks both newspapers featured extensive coverage, especially in regard to the pressure exerted by LLL and its supporters to have the bottle-feeding clip removed. The growing controversy was further sustained by comment in other media, including television, radio talkback and the blogging community.
In summary, LLL argued that the subsequent publicity had been particularly damaging to La Leche and that this media storm of criticism was largely created by the newspapers’ antagonistic approach to LLL.
As examples of the strident criticism the complainant forwarded letters to the Editor, editorials and opinion pieces published in the Herald, which contained emotive language such as “breastfeeding Nazis”, “ ‘breast only’ fanatics” and “The looniest crowd in this country, the most irrational and bullying, the breast feeding fanatics . . . “
The complaint focused on several alleged inaccuracies, including errors of fact and misleading content.
For example, the Herald stated that “La Leche’s complaint led to Piri Weepu’s tender moment being cut” (6/2/12/) but many individuals and groups had suggested to HSC that the clip be removed. Here, LLL had been singled out incorrectly and unfairly. Its position had been misrepresented.
Further, the columnist, Paul Holmes, had described the LLL request to HSC . . . “Take it off,” screamed LLL. (11/2/12) He also referred to LLL as “the hysterics” But LLL point out that analysis of the e-mails sent to HSC ( * at this stage only a sample 8 e-mails have been released – there is an OIA request for the rest of them) immediately show there was no “screaming”, instead the e-mails were courteous, calm, reasoned. The complainant also cites her own brief letter to HSC which after noting “the image in this ad could undo much of the work of the Ministry of Health’s national breastfeeding campaign”, concludes simply “LLLNZ recommends that this segment of the commercial is removed.”
The newspaper had repeatedly stressed the role played by LLL in pressuring HSC but the complainant argues that the e-mail campaign had been initiated by the co-ordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service who was a member of the LLL Consultancy Board but not in fact a LLL Board member and therefore someone who could not have any authority to act or speak for the LLL. Again it was the LLL which had been singled out for criticism and this was not deserved.
The complaint contends that there are errors of fact in the Herald’s editorial of 10/2/12.
First, it states that “LLL and Plunket have apologized for impugning Weepu’s fathering abilities” but LLL claims they have not apologized and see no need for any apology when they have never passed any comment about his qualities as a father.
Further, the editorial continues “in judging a young, popular Maori man who is a devoted dad” but the LLL question how the Herald can conclude they have “judged” Piri Weepu. The complainant notes the LLL response to the HSC does not mention Weepu at all. Nor is Weepu criticized in the co-ordinator’s letter to breast feeding supporters. And none of the sample e-mails sent to HSC reveal unfavourable comment about Weepu as a dad.
The complainant also claims that LLL was unfairly singled out for critical comment in several opinion pieces. The Holmes column mentioned above is cited along with comments such as “breastfeeding Nazis” (in an opinion piece by Dita De Boni) and “The La Leche League is rife with ideologues who believe there is only one way – their way” (Darrell Carlin).
LLL argue that given the controversy generated by the story, it was incumbent on the NZ Herald to give some reasonable prominence to LLL’s views.
The LLL agreed to be interviewed by the Herald’s health reporter for a feature which they believed would tell their side of the story. However, the “promised” feature did not eventuate, although a report did appear under the negative headline “Fanatical bullies? Not us, say La Leche”.
The LLL object to the use of the word “censorship” and its frequent use to describe the removal of the bottle-feeding shot. They argue that LLL could not have censored the advertisement, because they did not have such power. They gave the HSC an opinion and then the HSC made an internal decision to re-edit ie it was an editorial matter not the result of some outside group imposing its will on the HSC.
The complainant took issue with some headlines and captions.
The derogatory “’Breast-only’ fanatics hurt own cause” was again cited along with “Fanatical bullies, not us say La Leche”. The LLL contend that such headlines only served to perpetuate the view of LLL that it was an extremist organization and one prepared to bully and intimidate to get its own way.
The caption under the Your Views section, “La Leche’s complaint led to Weepu’s tender moment being cut” was a further example, where LLL was having to take all the responsibility for suggesting the “moment” be removed, although many groups and individuals had asked the HSC to make that decision.
It was made worse by the accompanying photograph, of Weepu and baby nestling cheek-to-cheek, because readers could assume that particular image was the one LLL had caused to be cut, but it was an image of Weepu bottle feeding which had concerned LLL. In fact, LLL had suggested images such as the one chosen as illustration here could be used to replace the bottle feeding shot.
The Editor’s Response
The editor described the Holmes column as “strong commentary” but it was clearly denoted as an opinion column and opinion writers had the right not just to criticize but also to be unsympathetic to the LLL cause if they so wished.
In any case, it was true that the campaign had been initiated by LLL. It had been started by a person who might claim to be representing the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Group but her information about the HSC ad could only have come from LLL. Moreover, she was a member of the LLL Board.
Further, not all the opinion pieces had been as negative about LLL as the complaint might suggest. For example, the Dita De Boni piece was supportive of the work of LLL and Scott Kara had written a “measured and gentle” examination of the issue.
As far as the Herald’s editorial was concerned the newspaper had been unaware that LLL had not apologized until this complaint was brought. The newspaper also now understands that LLL does not believe it has impugned Weepu’s fathering. The online version of the editorial is now accompanied by a correction, and a correction would be printed in the newspaper when the LLL complaint is settled.
However, he rejected the complaint against “in judging a young, popular Maori man . . . they (LLL and Plunket) infringed on another cause, for fathers to bond lovingly with their children”.
First, because the LLL letter to HSC outlining its position on the bottle feeding shot was “not in the public arena” when the editorial was written. Second, because the LLL had “inspired” the implication that Weepu was “engaging in something with his child that was less than ideal”.
The editor countered the claim that “censorship” had been used frequently and incorrectly. He could only find three examples of the word being used in covering this story.
One was within a news story and someone was quoted as urging the HSC “to retain the benefits of the censored footage”.
The next was in background comment to a piece in which LLL was given space to put its point of view – “the LLL has rejected its portrayal as a group of fanatics who bullied a government agency into censoring a clip of All Black Piri Weepu bottle-feeding.” Here, the use of the word does not say that LLL was the censor.
The third reference occurs in the Herald editorial. “The censoring of Weepu’s bottle-feeding moment brought to the surface . . .” Here, the editor pointed out that it had been made abundantly clear that it was not just LLL who was held responsible, for just three lines above it explained “The scene was deleted at the urging of LLL, Plunket and others.”
The editor rebutted the claim that balancing comment had not been sought from LLL. Its view had been put in every New Zealand Herald report that was relevant.
Further, no “promise” had been made about a feature article, but the director of the LLL and one of its board members had been interviewed and LLL had been given extensive space to explain its role in the affair.
He rejected the complaint about headlines and captions.
The headline “’Breast-only’ fanatics hurt own cause” on the editorial was a fair summation of the editorial expressed below the heading. He pointed out that “fanatic” did not mean religious maniac but someone with an obsessive enthusiasm or zeal.
The headline “Fanatical bullies, Not us” was drawing attention to LLL having its say in response to the often expressed view during that week that it was a bullying organization.
Finally, the photograph of Weepu and his daughter used in the Your Views segment was the only one available at the time and it was never intended to suggest that this was the photo objected to by LLL – any reasonable reader would have realized it was not the image at the centre of the furore.
Discussion and Decision
The Press Council accepts the editor’s view that it was reasonable to suggest that LLL had led the campaign. Alison Stanton, the Director of LLL New Zealand had contacted the co-ordinator of the Canterbury Breastfeeding Advocacy Service who then forwarded the message asking for support in urging HSC to remove the clip. The co-ordinator was not a member of the controlling Board of LLL as the newspaper contended in response to the complaint, but she was on the Board of the Consultancy Group to LLL. The links with LLL at a high level were clear.
The Council also accepts the rejection of the claims about the unfair treatment in opinion pieces. Some criticism was clearly harsh but other pieces were moderate and even, at times, supportive of LLL. Moreover, there is no need for a balanced view in opinion pieces (and that was recognized by LLL in its complaint).
The LLL complain that they were given little opportunity to give their side of the story and the lack of balance meant that the league was treated unfairly. However, for news reports, the LLL had been approached for comment and had been quoted, through Alison Stanton.
Further, although there is a dispute about the kind of feature or report that had been “promised”, there is no doubt that considerable space had been given to an article in which both the Director and a Board member of LLL had been interviewed and quoted extensively.
However, the Council was concerned about the Herald’s editorial, especially the comment that “LLL and Plunket have apologized for impugning Weepu’s fathering abilities”. The Council notes that the newspaper is now willing to make a correction, but the claim as published was a serious one, it did cast a slur on LLL, and the Council finds no evidence that LLL called Weepu’s role as a dad into question. Throughout messages to supporters, the e-mails to HSC and Stanton’s own letter to HSC, the focus was constant – the inappropriateness of including a clip showing bottle feeding in an ad funded by a government health body, when such bodies were committed to promoting breast feeding.
The Council was also concerned about “in judging a young, popular Maori man”. The same point arises. LLL had not “judged” Weepu. The Council found the editor’s response that LLL could be blamed because it had “inspired” the implication that Weepu was “engaging in something with his child that was less than ideal” unconvincing.
The headline to the editorial also seems overly emotive. It leads “‘Breast only’ fanatics . . .” which might lead some readers to surmise that LLL argues that all babies must be breast fed. That would misrepresent La Leche. Moreover, in this case LLL was simply advising HSC that images of bottle feeding strongly negate messages promoting breast feeding, work the Ministry of Health was promoting. Their concern was restricted to the mixed messages being sent.
Also, the words ‘breast only’ are marked off in the headline by quote marks, usually denoting that someone is being quoted. It is not at all clear who is being quoted or where the Herald gathered this phrase. It does not appear in the letters by either Stanton or the co-ordinator.
The Council does not believe that the use of the word censorship is warranted. The League made a suggestion, the HSC considered the suggestion and willingly removed the image from their own advertisement. This is not censorship.
The complaint about the Your Views segment is not as serious yet the Council can see the complainant’s point. First, it was not LLL’s complaint that led to Piri Weepu’s “tender moment being cut”, rather, it was the result of many voices from several organisations putting pressure on HSC.
And further, the cheek-to-cheek photograph of Weepu and baby daughter may perhaps have led some readers to assume that this was indeed the kind of image that LLL wanted to cut from the ad. That this was not the image at the centre of the controversy should have been made clear to readers.
The complainant stresses that “Criticising us for the position that bottle-feeding imagery should not feature in publicly funded health messages is fair game” and this perhaps recognizes that LLL’s position would always seem an extreme one to the public – especially when the clip in question was a mere 2 seconds of a much longer ad. That the criticism would be vehement when the clip showed a loving moment between a popular All Black and his baby is also completely unsurprising.
However, the complaint argues that while such comment is fair game, “Putting words in our mouth -- criticizing us for things we did not say or believe – is not.”
It did seem to the Council that at times the La Leche League was being pilloried for things they did not say nor believe.
Because of the inaccuracies noted above, this complaint is partly upheld, on the grounds of inaccuracies that led to unfairness.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.