ANNE BRAUN-ELWERT AGAINST RURAL NEWSTwo complaints against the Rural News were lodged by Anne Braun-Elwert on behalf of herself and her husband. She claimed that her husband, Gottlieb, had been made fun of because of his German origin and had been likened to Hitler. She also said that Rural News had incorrectly reported that her husband had had several run-ins with local farmers.
Neither complaint was upheld.
On 7 September 2004 Rural News featured Gottlieb Braun-Elwert in two sections of the paper, once in a front page report “Access group questioned” and secondly in the Editorial headed “Come clean on access”.
The front page article dealt with the Opposition’s questioning the impartiality of the Government’s controversial report into greater access to private land. One of the appointments to the 11 member group to help guide government policy on land access was Mr Braun-Elwert, a professional mountain guide with his own Alpine Recreation business, who had accompanied Prime Minister Helen Clark on a number of tramping expeditions. His name had been originally left off the list of appointees issued by the Government and Rural News was investigating the implications of this omission.
The editorial repeated most of this front page article. In addition the editor stated he had gathered sufficient information on Mr Braun-Elwert’s run-ins with high country farmers to believe that any anxiety the farming community had about his involvement in the land access debate was probably justified.
In response to the front page article and the editorial, Mr Braun-Elwert wrote to Rural News asking for an apology and correction of the information. Rural News published this letter on 21 September in an abridged form.
On 5 October Rural News continued with its theme that Mr Braun-Elwert was a controversial choice for the land access policy group. The paper published as an opinion piece a page of ‘Ag-mails’ headed “Go take a hike Fraulein Clark”, being a series of mock email correspondence supposedly written between Mr Braun-Elwert, John Acland and David Carter, the Opposition spokesman for land access. The first email was headed ‘Subject: - Sour Kraut’, and was addressed to Herr Carter from Gottlieb with a number of basic German words sprinkled through the body of the email. The supposed response from Mr Carter to Mr Braun-Elwert stated “Meanwhile, I remember reading about another German – in the 1930’s – who saw little harm in having greater access to the countryside (Poland, I believe) and look at the mayhem that caused!”
The emails did have a kind of disclaimer at the bottom of the page but the editor advised that these disclaimers were part of the joke. The same article on the Rural News website did not have a ‘joke’ disclaimer.
In response to the complaint, Rural News said that humour is completely subjective and what some readers find funny will be offensive to others. The managing editor justified the use of the mock emails on the grounds that Mr Braun-Elwert is a Government appointee to the land access reference group and is fair game, as is any such public figure.
Responding to the complaint that Rural News had been inaccurate about Mr Braun-Elwert’s run-ins with local farmers, the editor stated that Rural News had received assertions both on and off the record from a number of high country farmers that Mr Braun-Elwert was not on good terms with them.
The Press Council did not uphold the first part of the complaint about likening Mr Braun-Elwert to Hitler in the mock emails. The Council felt that the ‘joke’ about Hitler was in very poor taste but allowed the editor’s right to publish. The rest of the opinion piece was within the bounds of satire.
The Press Council did not uphold the second leg of the complaint about Mr Braun-Elwert’s relations with high country farmers. His letter to the editor had been published giving his point of view on his reputation with his neighbours. Rural News had gathered other local farmers’ differing views on their personal relationships with Mr Braun-Elwert and their attitude to his appointment to the land access policy group. Decisions about publication of such material must always lie with the editor. It is not the Press Council’s role to weigh the merits of either side of the argument.