P.FULLER AGAINST THE EVENING POST

Case Number: 762

Council Meeting: November 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Evening Post

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Bias

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by P.Fuller of Johnsonville against the Evening Post.

In an editorial on 3 August under the headline "Government bows to airline pilots' threats" the Evening Post contended that demands and threats from a powerful trade union - the Airline Pilots Association - had influenced the drafting of a new Transport Accident Investigation Bill. As a result "vital issues of accountability and the public's right to know" had been "elbowed aside." The editorial said: "Protection from prosecution appears to be the price demanded by pilots in return for the mandatory introduction of CVRs (cockpit voice recorders) on commercial planes, which the Bill also facilitates." It went on: "In effect, pilots are granted immunity from prosecution and investigations into aviation safety - a matter of the most vital public interest - are kept safely behind closed doors."

On August 10 P.Fuller complained to the editor that the editorial represented "media sensationalism" with particular reference to the suggestion that airline pilots wanted immunity from prosecution and had sanctioned the new legislation on this condition. The complainant maintained that the pilot is always "a convenient scapegoat" and that outsiders should not be given access to date recorded solely to assist accident investigations "so as to provide their own interpretations (of why accidents happen) and thus hide the truth." The question of media accountability was then introduced…"the emotive rambling in your editorial is typical of a profession who are seldom held accountable." P.Fuller indicated that a complaint would be submitted to the Press Council.

The editor of the Evening Post replied the same day that the editorial reflected the Post's view of the legislation and that the newspaper stood by that opinion. She invited the complainant to submit a letter to the editor and observed that an article on 9 August, criticising the media, of which the complainant had approved, and referral of the complaint to the Press Council gave the lie to the claim that the media were not accountable. The Press Council accepts this argument.

P.Fuller chose not to write a letter to the editor and complained to the Press Council. The editorial "embellished the truth in this blatant attack on pilots," failing to mention that the Airline Pilots Association were not the only professional group opposed to the unrestricted use of CVR information in the courts. The public had been given an "extremely misleading" impression. Pilots are not immune from and did not seek immunity from prosecution. They sought only common sense restrictions on the use of CVR data, as in the Bill.

In his reply the deputy editor emphatically rejected the complaint and P.Fuller's request that the Evening Post apologise to the Airline Pilots Association and set the record straight with the public. The editorial was neither misleading nor inaccurate. The paper was merely asserting its right to comment on a matter it firmly believed was in the public interest. The editorial reflected the views of a number of State institutions, professional organisations and independent individuals.

In the meantime the Transport Accident Investigation Bill was passed by Parliament. In another editorial on 13 September, the Evening Post maintained that the new Act was an attempt to "smooth the ruffled feathers of a powerful - and it must be said - precious occupational group." Parliament had given the impression that it is willing to bow to threats and intimidation and that New Zealand legislation is "remarkably solicitous" towards airline pilots.

P.Fuller then replied to the Press Council to say that the editorial of 3 August failed to meet the Press Council's own criteria in regard to lack of balance and fairness, deceitful journalism and editorial bias. Above all the editorial did not serve the public's right to hear all sides of a story. The editor had simply hidden behind a defence of "editorial opinion." What was more "the editor had responded in a fit of pique to this complaint" with "another bitter, bitter attack on pilots" in the editorial of 13 September.

The Press Council noted that the trenchant editorial opinion on public issues was the essence of a free press. Editorials by definition were vehicles for carrying the newspaper's views rather than extended analysis. Equally the Evening Post had not been guilty of a lack of balance as the 3 August editorial outlined the pilots' case. There was no cause to accuse the editor of writing the editorial of 13 September out of pique at a complaint, when the Evening Post's views were so clearly on record beforehand. The Council considered whether there may have been some absence of fairness in the inference in the editorial, that all the pilots were interested in was obtaining immunity from prosecution. This suggestion was, however, qualified by the word "appears." The newspaper was clearly not alone in its view. He High Court and the Court of Appeal had ruled in favour of the admissibility of CVR data. The police, Law Society and Newspaper Publishers" Association had made submissions to that effect. The Law Society too had said that Parliament should not make law which submits to actions and threats. Robustness in debate should not be discouraged where the public interest is so obviously engaged.

The complaint is not upheld.

Ms Suzanne Carty, editor of the Evening Post and herself a member of the Press Council, was not present at the meeting when the complaint was considered