ROBYN STENT AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 771

Council Meeting: February 2000

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Editorial Discretion
Accuracy

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by the the Health and Disability Commissioner, Robyn Stent, against the Sunday Star-Times over the abridgement of a letter she had written to the paper. Ms Stent wrote to the newspaper in response to a column by Sandra Coney of more than 700 words on October 3, which strongly criticised the commissioner's performance in the job.

Ms Stent's letter was 456 words and it was abridged to 228 words. She complained to the Press Council that it was edited in such a way that it misled the reader. Further she complained that she was not consulted about its editing and should have been, and that the newspaper removed the honorific she had given to Sandra Coney, thereby seeming disrespectful.

The council does not accept the last two legs of the complaint. It is quite in order for the newspaper to adopt its own style for honorifics, to use them or not as it wishes. As to abridging, letter writers are clearly told on the newspaper's letters page not to exceed 200 words and that letters may be edited. Newspapers are entitled to do that without reference back to the author. Some newspapers tell readers when a letter has been abridged and some do not.

The council believes it is preferable to do so but it is perfectly in order for a newspaper not to do so, especially when it states every week that it may abridge letters.

On the whole, Ms Stent's letter was fairly edited, but for one glaring exception. In the original letter, and clearly referring to a phrase Sandra Coney had used about health providers, Ms Stent said: "Contrary to what Ms Coney says in her article, I have not said medical practitioners must provide information about alternative therapy options. I have certainly never advocated that providers have a duty to tell consumers what's available even when it's outside their particular paradigm and even if it's irrelevant to the reason for which the consumer sought a consultation."

It was edited and published to read: "I have not said medical practitioners must provide information about alternative therapy options and have never advocated providers have a duty to tell consumers what's available."

In her complaint to the Press Council, Ms Stent said the reason the statement is misleading is that by law, health providers do have an obligation to inform consumers in the matter set out in Right No 6 of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights. "As printed, it appears I am saying that providers do not have a duty at all to tell consumers what is available. This is incorrect and misleading."

The council agrees. In the original letter, Ms Stent is saying that she does not advocate that health providers must inform consumers about their choices in circumstances outside their sphere of relevance. The published letter suggests that she does not advocate health providers have to inform consumers at all what is available. Those are vastly different meanings.

The council makes no comment on what the commissioner actually does or does not do in the performance or her job but it concludes that the published view of Ms Stent is demonstrably different from her originally stated view.

Ms Stent wrote to the Sunday Star Times editor asking that her original letter be published in full with an apology. In reply, the editor said it was "the right of newspapers to edit or abridge letters as long as the meaning is not lost or distorted." The council agrees but believes that in this case the editing did distort the meaning in an important aspect of the letter.

The council upholds the complaint. But it does so with a reservation because of the way Ms Stent complained to the newspaper. In her complaint to the editor, she did not specify the editing error but simply insisted that her original letter be published again in full and with an apology. She might more reasonably have explained how her views had been distorted and invited the newspaper to publish the second letter or a correction. The editor saw the detail of the complaint only when it was set out in a letter to the Press Council.

However even then, the editor still maintained that no misrepresentation had occurred and so no remedy had been offered. The council upholds the complaint.