STEVE MC CORMACK AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 976

Council Meeting: MAY 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The New Zealand Herald by Steve McCormack of Napier about the inclusion in a ‘Myword’ column in the Weekend Herald of 7-8 February of a quotation taken from remarks by the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Brash. Mr McCormack complained that publication of this single sentence, in isolation and out of context, breached the Press Council’s principles as to accuracy, fairness and balance and the need not to “deliberately mislead or misinform.”

The quotation disputed by Mr McCormack was first published in an article in The Herald on 5 February 2004 in a report on Waitangi Day issues: Many employers, faced with the choice of hiring a Maori or a non-Maori of equal qualifications, equal merit, might very well choose the non-Maori, because of the risk that the Maori would be away for a significant chunk of time. The remarks attributed to Dr Brash were apparently taken from an interview he had given to Newstalk ZB radio.

Mr McCormack contended that in using the above quotation the ‘Myword’ column deliberately misled readers by omission. The column should have provided balance by including an immediately preceding sentence from Dr Brash’s remarks: .. new holidays legislation that would give Maori wider rights to take leave, would work against Maori.

Mr McCormack claimed that omission of reference to the holidays legislation gave the impression that Dr Brash advocated that “employers discriminate between potential employees on the basis of race” – which would be in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Human Rights Act, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act. It would moreover suggest that Dr Brash endorsed race-based discrimination when the opposite is the case, in that Dr Brash advocates ending race-based policies.

The ‘Myword’ column in The Herald is a selection of quotations taken from remarks in the public arena during the previous week. The Deputy Editor of The Herald described it as “a compilation of quotable quotes from the week’s news.” Quotations are, by definition, likely to be capsular and succinct. Collections of quotations are widely used in newspapers, to cast a spotlight on issues or simply as lively and often amusing commentary on news and views as expressed locally or around the world. Quotations make a point and to that extent lack balance. But they can also highlight the essential quirkiness and complexities of human affairs. If required to carry the full argument on an issue, quotations would no longer be quotable. They are, by contrast, often cherished for their very pungency.

The Press Council obviously takes no position on the political issues inherent in this complaint. Placement of a quotation of this kind in a quotations column, however, simply highlights a passing remark which might otherwise be lost from sight. The quotation in question was a contribution to an issue under public discussion. The Council does not read it as deliberately misleading or inaccurate. The Council indeed does not find that the sentence in question carries the implications Mr McCormack reads into it. There is no inference that Dr Brash advocates discrimination. Readers would in any case have been most unlikely to conclude that a single sentence quote in a quotations column would carry the full weight of Dr Brash’s views on the matter. This is the more so because those views - in respect of the holidays legislation - had been adequately reported two days beforehand in the issue of 5 February from which the quotation was taken.

Mr McCormack raises a further point in contending that “each article …should independently bear scrutiny to a minimum standard of journalism (ie accept the principle of accuracy)”. Obviously accuracy must be maintained. The Council does not, however, accept Mr McCormack’s contention that publication of a quotation constitutes an ‘article’ for this purpose. Equally the Council does not agree with Mr McCormack’s extension of this argument to suggest that “for Press Council complaints resolution processes” each edition of a newspaper stands alone so that coverage of an issue as a whole (or over time) may not be taken into account. It would place an impossible burden on newspapers and readers alike to require that every article, report or quotation in each issue cover all sides on every topic. Balance is all, and it is acceptable – even good – journalistic practice to achieve balance and to come at a story from different angles in follow-up issues.

The complaint is not upheld.

Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this adjudication.