ALAN EMERSON AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2952

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

(1) This complaint relates to two RNZ articles published online on August 27 and August 30.

(2) On August 27, RNZ published a story Call for changes to reporting and policing of animal welfare issues on farms.

(3) The story reported the opinion of an animal welfare campaigner, Angus Robson, who said the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was under resourced to investigate animal welfare issues.

(4) The story quoted Robson saying he believed vets did not always report suspicions of bad farming practices, as they feared negative impacts on their businesses.

(5) The story also includes comment from the New Zealand Veterinary Association, MPI's Director Compliance and the past chair of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, Dr John Hellstrom, responding to Mr Robson’s opinion.

(6) On August 30, RNZ published a second story Rural veterinarians empathetic but compromised over animal welfare reporting, vet says.

(7) The story says a vet who was also a farmer was supporting Mr Robson’s claim that vets sometimes turned a blind eye to animal welfare issues as they were scared of the reaction from the community they served.

(8) The story repeats Mr Robson’s opinion regarding vets not reporting animal welfare issues. It quotes Alison Dewes, a vet and farmer from Waikato, who said vets played a major part in a rural community and this made it difficult to ‘dob’ someone in.

(9) Alan Emerson complains that the August 27 story breaches standards covered by the Media Council’s Principle 1 – Accuracy, fairness and balance.

(10) Mr Emerson complains that the August 30 story breaches the same standards.

The Complaint

(11) Mr Emerson says the August 27story is not balanced as farmers were not interviewed, and those persons who were interviewed were city based with no practical knowledge of farms

(12) He says the story is inaccurate and questions the basis upon which Mr Robson claims:

  • Animal cruelty is a major problem
  • Rural vets turn a blind eye to some of the things they say because it could affect their business

(13) Mr Emerson says he has analysed MPI Animal Welfare reports and NAIT compliance reports and animal welfare isn’t a major issue in NZ.

(14) Mr Emerson says SPCA have told him there are over 6500 cruelty cases involving dogs in cities and asks “who reported that?’’

(15) Mr Emerson says the story is not fair and asks “why take the word of a mechanical engineer with a well-established gripe against farmers, while not talking to any farmer?”

(16) He also asks “why concentrate on a minor issue in rural NZ while ignoring a major animal cruelty issue in the cities”.

(17) Mr Emerson says the August 30 story is not balanced. He says he is not aware of Alison Dewes working as a vet, or a farmer and questions whether she is a ‘bone fide food producer or an owner of a lifestyle block?’’.

(18) He says Ms Dewes’ claim that vets fear being victimised and losing business if they ‘dob’ someone in is nonsense. The story makes farmers look like a pack of ‘ignorant yokels maltreating animals and then making life difficult for the vet and his or her family. It is simply, a complete nonsense’’.

(19) Mr Emerson says the story is inaccurate as Ms Dewes offers no proof of her view that vets don’t report animal cruelty because of the reasons set out in the story.

(20) Mr Emerson says the August 30 story is not fair as it paints vets as ‘spineless’ and rural communities as ‘bullies’.

(21) Mr Emerson says there are 30,000 farmers in NZ and “Radio NZ Is belittling all those farmers plus the vets that serve them while offering absolutely no proof of any problem. Simply it is opinion masquerading as fact’’.

The Response

The Response – August 27 story

(22) For RNZ, George Bignell said the August 27 story contained a number of facts and information provided by Mr Robson in support of his comments. In response to Mr Emerson’s assertion that “no evidence was offered’ Mr Bignell says “That was simply not the case”.

(23) Mr Bignell says that given the background information Mr Robson provided, and his past experience with animal welfare campaigns, Mr Robson was entitled to hold his position on calling for changes to the reporting and policing of animal welfare issues.

(24) Regarding balance – Mr Bignell said the August 27 story included comment from a number of spokespeople including the chief veterinary officer for the NZ Vet Association, the MPI’s director of compliance and the past chair of the National Animal Welfare Advisory committee.

(25) Regarding accuracy – Mr Bignell said the August 27 story did not, as Mr Emerson asserts, claim that animal cruelty was a ‘major problem on farms’. The story quoted Mr Robson as saying vets feared they would not get business if they reported welfare issues.

(26) The past chair of the National Animal Welfare Advisory committee provided a counter view to this in the story, saying any reluctance was about living in a small community rather than commercial reasons.

(27) Re fairness – Mr Bignell says a person does not have to be a farmer to make comments about the issues raised by Mr Robson.

The Response – August 30 story

(28) Mr Bignell said Dr Dewes was a farmer, regardless of whether or not she lived on a lifestyle block. She was also a qualified vet and along with her farming experience, this led toRNZ describing her as an expert.

(29) Mr Bignell says the story did not make blanket claims addressing all farmers or the entire rural community. It stated that Dr Dewes had come out in support of claims rural vets sometimes turn a blind eye to animal welfare issues.

(30) Re fairness – Mr Bignell says RNZ rejects the assertion that the story painted the rural community as bullies. “Her (Dr Dewes) comments focussed on the environment in which vets operate and some of the difficulties they encounter,’’ Mr Bignell says.

(31) Re balance – Mr Bignell says it was legitimate to examine the story from one perspective, andRNZ was quoting Dr Dewes’ opinions as a follow-up to the original story.

(32) Re accuracy – Dr Dewes’ opinion was based on 30 years -experience in rural communities, Mr Bignell says.

Mr Emerson’s final comment

(33) Mr Emerson said he does not believe MPI is under resourced, or Mr Robson’s claims re vets not reporting bad farming practices.

(34) “Mr Robson is entitled to his opinion but I’d suggest he has no qualifications to make them. He is a mechanic noted for his anti-farmer views. His previous crusade was driving around Southland photographing cows in mud”, Mr Emerson says.

The Decision

(35) Mr Emerson’s complaints and RNZ’s response are both well set out. Having analysed the stories, and taken into account the clearly articulated complaints and responses, the Media Council view is that these complaints fall into the category of a complainant clearly not liking the stories published, but that alone is not a reason to uphold the complaints.

(36) Mr Emerson vigorously objects to the views expressed, as he is entitled to, but this does not make the views that have been reported inaccurate, imbalanced or unfair.

(37) A key theme to Mr Emerson’s complaints is that, based on his research, there is no issue with animal welfare according to statistical data.

(38) This is partly the very point that the RNZ stories are making – an animal welfare expert is of the view that complaints are not being made for the reasons set out in the stories. Therefore, they will not be represented in statistics.

(39) In the August 27 story, RNZ has sought opinion from a range of sources to balance Mr Robson’s view. Opinion from the farming industry is not represented, but is not required given the opinion focusses on the veterinary sector. Appropriate comment, in response to Mr Robson’s view, is included from this sector.

(40) The August 30 story is a follow-up to the August 27 story, that quotes Dr Dewes - a vet and a farmer – who is responding to Mr Robson’s assertions, and backing them up.

(41) Mr Emerson repeatedly observes that Dr Dewes lives on a lifestyle block and therefore isn’t a farmer. There is no evidence within the complaint that Dr Dewes is not a farmer.

(42) The RNZ stories deal with an aspect of the long-running topic of animal welfare on farms. Mr Emerson complains that the stories depict the rural community as having a "major' animal welfare problem. The Media Council notes that these articles deal with a more focused concern - specifically, Mr Robson's view that vets are reticent to report cases. The stories also question how animal welfare issues could be better policed and reported.

Decision

The Media Council can find no breach of the Principles cited and for the reasons set out in the above analysis the complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.