PAT PALMER AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 820

Council Meeting: May 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Pat Palmer, secretary of the Association of Independent Researchers complained to the New Zealand Press Council against The Press newspaper about an article published in November 2000 and headed "Dioxin threat to farms, Concern over agricultural export products." The basis of the article was an unpublished Environment Canterbury survey of hazardous chemicals in the Christchurch air. The report was "due for release by the end of the year."

Air quality scientist Bob Airey was quoted on the significant concentrations of dioxins emitted by household fires, the concern if they were being deposited in the soil on Canterbury farms and the threat to New Zealand's clean, green image if dioxins present in the soil were in exported agricultural products. A Ministry for the Environment policy analyst was also quoted. The article was published on November 20, 2000 and in the December 11 issue of the paper a letter dated November 21 from Pat Palmer appeared. In it Dr Palmer said of the story "it would be better if we were told the facts, if we were shown the report so we can judge its content, merit and relevance before Canterbury Environment embarks on another propaganda campaign against home fires."

Unpublished correspondence then ensued between Pat Palmer and the editor. Dr Palmer said he found from Environment Canterbury that the basis for the claims in the story was the Ministry for the Environment report entitled "Persistent Organochlorines in New Zealand" which did not support "the alarmist claims" in the article which therefore left a "misleading impression." He urged the editor in several letters to publish a corrective story. Unsatisfied at the editor's responses, Dr Palmer complained to the Press Council to advance this process.

The editor's firm but polite responses to Dr Palmer pointed out the number of letters and articles over the years which the paper had published from Dr Palmer and his colleagues in support of their points of view in the debate. He quite fairly indicated that the newspaper would publish Dr Palmer's views from time to time in the future and is to be commended for keeping his vigorous correspondence columns open to all sides of a debate. In further background to the Press Council, the editor said Pat Palmer was a tireless campaigner and letter writer for the case that cars rather than winter fires are the main culprit in Christchurch's severe smog problem.

The heart of the complaint is that The Press article was misleading when compared with an already published Ministry for the Environment report. But the principal assertions in the articles are wuotes from scientist Bob Airey referring to an unpublished Environment Canterbury survey "due for release" at the end of the year. A news story about a research programme does not necessarily have to refer to other research. Nor will a report that is already published necessarily contain all the material in a survey due for release. Pending the appearance of the final Environment Canterbury report, the newspaper is entitled to publish an interim story about aspects of that research programme. Views dissenting from the article can be aired, and The Press has quite properly published those.

In the Press article in question, the reporting There has been no complaint to the Press Council from the people quoted about any inaccuracy in the story. And, on behalf of the readers, the newspaper has shown initiative in searching out information from work in progress which relates to a pressing local issue.

The complaint is not upheld.