TOM REARDON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 1024

Council Meeting: MARCH 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Tom Reardon complains that two articles in the NZ Herald (10 November 2004) contained significant factual errors and were based on wrong or misleading information. His complaint, specifying “misleading facts and perspectives”, is not upheld.

The first of the articles, “Health experts hit back at anti-vaccine campaign”, is a small and straightforward news story about pro-vaccine concerns that parents are declining meningococcal B vaccine injections for their children because of safety fears. The article comprises advice from Health Ministry strategy director Jane O’Hallahan that the vaccine is “the best protection we can offer” during an outbreak of “epidemic proportions”. Dr O’Hallahan also hits out at what she calls the “fallacies and misinformation promulgated by a small group of activists with an anti-immunisation agenda”. The story does not attempt to revisit a longstanding pro- versus anti-immunisation debate.

The second story, “Enough of this ‘debate’ on vaccine”, is a clearly labelled comment piece by Immunisation Advisory Centre director Nikki Turner on why she believes vaccination to be a good thing. The piece includes a personal account of Dr Turner’s “years spent trying to find a reason” for her own daughter’s congenital handicap, “because having a reason seems to make it easier to cope with”.

In a lengthy letter of complaint Mr Reardon questions the accuracy of claims that the meningococcal disease is of epidemic proportions when he says he has figures to show it is in decline. He accuses Dr O’Hallahan of deliberately exaggerating the number of clinical trials done to test the vaccine; upbraids Dr Turner for her delight that a vaccine is available to protect her children; demands “proof” of an earlier story’s claim for the vaccine, saying the Herald is allowing incorrect statements to be made without substantiation; questions the number of control trials done in New Zealand, the adequacy of these, and the accuracy of health professionals’ evaluations; and further complains about the paper’s non-publication of letters to the editor.

In response, Herald editor Tim Murphy says that the vaccination debate is one engendering strong opinions. He says Mr Reardon clearly disagrees with the country’s health officials and their vaccination policy. The paper had earlier carried a substantial series on the vaccination programme – with prominent inclusion of views against its implementation. The paper stood by its reporting and rejected any accusation of breaches in professional standards.

The Press Council finds the complaints to be unfounded. The second article complained of is clearly identified as an opinion piece: Dr Turner is entitled to put her honestly held views and the newspaper is free to carry them. For the following reasons, the first article is also found to be justifiable.

In a wide-ranging debate such as the vaccination one, the Herald, especially after earlier giving space to criticisms of the practice, is entitled to write about specific concerns of health experts. It would be asking too much of any paper to revisit all sides of such a complex and controversial argument every time a newsworthy aspect comes before it. It is also reasonable for a newspaper to lean in its coverage toward the views of mainstream medical experts. Mr Reardon has forthright views on the practice and viability of vaccination. He has a clear right to hold those views – but so too does the Herald to report the issue as it sees it. Mr Reardon cannot reasonably take umbrage with the newspaper for promulgating views different from his own.

It is beyond the scope of the Press Council to rule on the pros or cons of the much-debated immunisation issue. An earlier judgment (Case 847), found that the breadth of the immunisation debate precluded any simple test to determine the accuracy and balance of claims and allegations made. It resolved that the council was not constituted or resourced to pursue enquiries that would enable it to adjudicate on the complex issues involved. With very large public issues under almost permanent surveillance and adjustment, it could not make an adjudication founded on accuracy and balance.

On the question of letters not being published, that is a prerogative that lies with the newspaper editor.

Mr Reardon’s depth of feeling is acknowledged, but he should be careful not to overstep reasonable boundaries of argument himself in the manner in which he expresses his opinions. To claim, as he does, that named health experts are “deliberately” putting wrong or misleading facts before the New Zealand public is a serious allegation and one wanting clear proof before airing. His complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Murray Williams, Keith Lees and Terry Snow.