W CHURCH AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY HERALD-TRIBUNE

Case Number: 711

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 1998

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawke's Bay Hearld-Tribune

The Press Council has found no merit in a complaint that the Hawke’s Bay
Herald-Tribune had published a report containing offensive discriminatory language and had shown bias in its treatment of letters to the editor.

The complaint arose from a news report in the newspaper on 23 March. This stated that the forthcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church would debate whether homosexuality is a “sin, sickness or normal condition.” The report referred to previous discussions on the role of homosexuals in the church and to the deep diversity of convictions held over issues relating to homosexuality. It said too that the Assembly would discuss how to deal with derogatory statements directed against homosexuals by members of the church.

The report led to a series of letters to the editor by Mr Wayne Church, the president of the New Zealand Secular Society. Two of these were published, two were not. The outcome was a complaint to the Press Council by Mr Church making a series of charges against the Herald-Tribune.

In setting out the terms of the proposed debate within the General Assembly, Mr Church claimed, the paper had published offensive, discriminatory language. It had also been guilty of bias in favouring letters by correspondents who had responded to his own letters, since his had been abridged by the editor and theirs had not. And by refusing to publish his later letters, the paper had denied him his right of free speech.

In his published and unpublished letters and in his complaints to the editor and the Press Council, Mr Church traversed wide ground. He developed diverse arguments, including the assertions that in reporting the content of the proposed General Assembly debate, the paper had infringed Human Rights legislation and that the right to freedom of expression outweighed editorial discretion in the treatment of correspondence.

In replying to Mr Church’s complaints, the editor pointed out that he had published two of his letters and one each of the correspondents who had challenged his views. The editor had brought the correspondence to a close with a footnote suggesting that Mr Church and one of his principal antagonists continue the debate directly between themselves. He commented that his paper’s readers were now well aware of the views each held. He added that since the original exchanges Mr Church had had another of
his many letters published. This repeated his familiar theme of secularism. He said that Mr Church received a reasonable amount of space for his letters, both in the Herald-Tribune and other local papers.

This drew another extensive letter to the Press Council in which Mr Church expressed gratitude for the amount of space accorded him by the Herald-Tribune to express his views.

The Press Council found no merit in the criticisms of the newspaper. In reporting the intended scope of the General Assembly’s proposed debate on homosexuality, the paper had not used offensive language, but had simply given a straightforward factual account that in no way committed it to any form of stance on the homosexuality issue.
It had been fair to Mr Church in the scope it had afforded him to express his arguments and it had not been biased in favour of correspondents who had taken up the cudgels against him. All in all, the Press Council found no fault in the editor’s actions and did not uphold the complaint.