NEIL HAYES AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 1001

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Photographs
Accuracy

Mr Hayes has complained about an article, headlined “Children play with guns at Auckland show”, published on page 4 of the Sunday Star-Times on 3 October 2004.

The complaint is not upheld.

The article comprised a prominent photograph, a headline, and a short article. The photograph shows a group of people at a stall in the Auckland Arms Fair, including a young person working the stall and a boy looking down the sights of a rifle. The article centres on comment from various ‘family’ interest groups on the fact that children were “playing with firearms” at the Fair and the detrimental effects of exposing children to guns. Fair organiser, Tony Daw, is reported as saying that security was tight at the event and children were not allowed to ‘handle guns.’ Mr Daw is then quoted as saying “It’s not like kids pick [guns] up and play with them”.

Mr Hayes complaint is that the article breaches principles 1 (accuracy), 11 (manipulation), and 9 (subterfuge). The papers before the Council include correspondence from Mr Philpott, the owner of the stall photographed and the father of the young person supervising it at the time. The correspondence has all been addressed or copied to Mr Hayes, and he has Mr Philpott’s permission to use it in support of his complaint. Those parts of Mr Philpott’s correspondence that are relevant to Mr Hayes’ complaint have been taken into consideration.

Subterfuge

The paper is entitled to photograph any person in a public place and to publish that photograph. The Fair was a public event: it was open to the public on payment of a fee. Mr Hayes asserts that the paper had no right to take photographs at the Fair because cameras were expressly barred from the event. He has provided a copy of a notice stating that “cameras, videos and carry bags” were not allowed “for security reasons”, which he says was prominently displayed at the entrance to the Fair. The photographer says that he did not see any poster, that he openly carried his camera and took photographs at the Fair, and that nobody took issue with him doing so. In any event, the camera ban does not seem to have been directed at the press, indeed Mr Philpott notes that another reporter was given a tour of the Fair and that TV footage was taken. For this reason, the complaint of subterfuge is not upheld.

Manipulation of the photograph

Mr Hayes and Mr Philpott both assert that the photographer ‘conned’ or ‘forced’ the boy to pick up a gun and ‘staged’ the photograph. The photographer denies any manipulation and asserts that the boy pictured was merely one of several children he observed ‘handling’ weapons at the Fair. Mr Philpott claims to have personally witnessed the photographer manhandling the boy and forcing him to pick up a gun and pose for the camera. However, Mr Philpott does not say he challenged the photographer at the time about the fact he was taking pictures or the manner in which he is alleged to have done so. Further, the picture itself does not support the allegations made: neither the stallholder (Mr Philpott’s daughter) nor the other adults pictured appear at all concerned. The Council does not accept Mr Philpott’s account. The complaint of manipulation is not upheld.

The headline and accuracy, fairness and balance

The Sunday Star-Times is entitled to adopt a forthright stance and advocate a position on the issue of children and guns (see principle 7). The only restriction is that, when reporting on that issue, it must be guided by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers (see principle 1). That includes Headlines, which should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the reports they are designed to cover (see principle 10).

Mr Hayes and Mr Philpott both argue, contrary to the family advocates’ views reported in the article, that it is healthy and wise to educate children about guns. That view was not presented in the article but an alternative argument about gunsports and collecting was put forward by Mr Daw. It cannot be said that the article lacked balance.

There is one matter that has given pause. The headline refers to children playing with guns whilst the article refers to both ‘playing’ with and ‘handling’ guns. It might be argued that the two terms are materially different: the former evoking images of unsupervised children with weapons potentially hurting themselves or others, whilst the latter evokes a controlled situation. However, that is not the case here. The article uses the terms interchangeably as is shown by that part of the article reporting Mr Daw’s comments. On that basis, it cannot be said that the headline or the article as a whole is inaccurate or unfair.

The complaint is not upheld.