BEN CARMICHAEL AGAINST RNZ
Case Number: 3472
Council Meeting: December 2023
Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Ruling Categories: Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori
- RNZ published an online news article on 24 October 2023, headlined: Tauranga hosts Te Pūtake o Te Riri commemoration of New Zealand Wars. Ben Carmichael complained the article breached Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; and Principle (4) Comment and Fact. The complaint is not upheld with dissent.
- This article was about Tauranga hosting this year’s Te Pūtake o Te Riri – the commemoration of the New Zealand Wars.
- The focus of this year's commemorations was Pukehinahina - the site at Greerton where the Battle of Gate Pā took place between Māori and colonial troops 159 years ago.
- Community leader Charlie Rahiri was quoted as saying the British forces suffered a heavy defeat in the 29 April 1864 battle despite vastly outnumbering Māori.
- .Māori abided by the rules of engagement they had drafted in a letter to the British a month earlier, he said. "The true measure of the Māori was the fact that they had these rules of engagement that meant that, at the end of the day, we had to look after one another - especially those who were … wounded."
- However, that code of conduct was not reciprocated when the colonial forces attacked an unfinished pā at Te Ranga a couple of months later, he said.
- ‘’They marched on, unannounced, wiped everyone out, even women and children,’’ Mr Rahiri was quoted as saying.
- Events such as Pūtake o te Riri were important to ensure these “hidden stories were put into the public eye and amplified.”
- Mr Carmichael complained to RNZ and then to the Media Council that Mr Rahiri’s comment that the code of conduct was not reciprocated at Te Ranga and that colonial forces ‘’marched on, unannounced, wiped everyone out, even women and children’’ was factually incorrect.
- He said there were about 500 Māori at Te Ranga - 100 were killed, 43 were taken prisoner and the rest escaped. There was no record of women and children being present.
- The comment deliberately misled and misinformed the reader.
- Mr Carmichael also cited Principle (4), saying the article appeared to be based around Mr Rahiri’s opinion and violated the principle which states “Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.’’
- RNZ, in its initial response, said it did not agree. The article’s focus was on the impending commemoration and activities in Tauranga.
- Comment was made referencing the battle at Te Ranga. The person who made the comment was not a historian but a community leader.
- Whether or not the reference to casualties was correct, there appeared to be some difference in historical references about the number and make up of people killed.
- RNZ, in its formal response to the Media Council, added that the story was a feature interview not a news item. It questioned whether the accuracy standard applied to comments made by a kaumatua in these circumstances.
- The article was also not a documentary or a detailed discussion on the outcomes of a particular battle in those wars.
- RNZ noted further that there was not one commonly agreed account of what happened at Te Ranga. According to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage 108 Māori were found dead in and around the trenches. Another 43 were taken prisoner, 32 of them wounded and 15 later died from their wounds. No detail was given as to the make-up of those killed or wounded.
- RNZ said Mr Rahiri’s comments may have overstated what happened at Te Ranga but the quantum of deaths and casualties in that battle were ‘’of no moment to the centrality of this story.”
- Mr Carmichael, in response to RNZ’s position, described the assertion that accuracy and balance was “not applicable to the comments of a kaumatua in these circumstances'’ as nonsense. RNZ had an obligation and responsibility to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance, no matter the nature of the story.
- A person reading the story would be misled into thinking that the British killed all the people present at the Pa, when this was clearly not the case as people were taken prisoner, as noted in RNZ's response. Lastly, RNZ admitted that Mr Rahiri’s comments may have ‘’overstated’’ what happened - as if the accuracy and truthfulness of his comments were irrelevant.
- Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance says ‘’Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues …’’
- Many online references to the Battle of Te Ranga provide approximate casualty numbers but do not break down the make-up of Māori casualties.
- The difficulty with this complaint is, who is correct when it comes to New Zealand history? It is not unusual for people – iwi, historians, and community leaders - to have differing interpretations over exactly what took place all those years ago.
- Mr Rahiri’s comment that everyone was wiped out and women and children killed was a direct quote and is clearly his perspective on what happened. He is entitled to hold his version of what took place. It was not stated outright as a fact by RNZ.
- When it comes to New Zealand’s history and land wars, the Council accepts some iwi members will have their own versions of what took place, passed down through generations and that these might differ from other accounts.
- The flip side of this is that historical websites do not go as far as saying women and children were killed at Te Ranga and that everyone was wiped out. To achieve the highest standards of journalism, RNZ could have included a sentence to make it clear there was an alternative version of events, particularly when this had been brought to its attention.
- However, given Mr Rahiri was quoted directly and is clearly expressing his version of history, this does not amount to a breach of Principle (1).
- Principle (4) Comment and Fact states “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.’’ In this instance, Mr Rahiri’s comments were direct quotes which make clear it is his perspective.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld on Principle (1) or Principle (4).
Dissent by Raynor Asher, Hank Schouten, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson and Judi Jones:
- We agree with the background to the issue as set out in the majority decision and much of what is said. We do not see the nature of the fatalities at Te Ranga as a long-running issue under Principle (1) where balance was not required. The general nature of the New Zealand Wars is a long-running issue, but the nature of Māori fatalities at the battle of Te Ranga is not.
- The quote in question that the colonial forces ‘wiped everyone out, even women and children’ is not supported by reports at the time and is not mentioned in any of the reputable recent histories of the Wars. It is accepted however that Mr Rahiri’s view will be supported by oral histories within his iwi. No complaint can be upheld only because his account is quoted in the article.
- But the assertion that women and children were massacred and the implication that there were no prisoners taken and defenceless people were killed is of the utmost seriousness. Readers, including children, will read this and it will colour in a fundamental way their perspective of this piece of history. While balance is not essential in statements of opinion, this was a quote about a matter of fact. A foundation of fact is required, and balance is not to be ignored in relation to the publication of quotes purporting to state facts.
- Oral history and views such as those of Mr Rahiri deserve respect and should be aired. We cannot decide what the truth of this was, but on a narrow point like this it is unfair just to present one view. Given the seriousness of the statement of a massacre of all present and the allegation not being supported by available written histories, the quote could have been omitted from the article which was stated to be about the hosting by Tauranga of this year’s Te Pūtake o te Riri. The article insofar as it referred to previous battles, focussed on the earlier more famous battle of Gate Pā until the last few quotes. However, RNZ chose to include it.
- RNZ in its response acknowledged that there are various truths on the battle. That is so, and if the quoted statement of Mr Rahiri was to be published, to achieve balance and fairness there should have been a reference to the contrary view of what happened. For example, it could have been said after the quote that there are different descriptions of what happened at Te Ranga where there is no reference to such a massacre, such as the description of the Waitangi Tribunal, Te Raupatu O Tauranga Moana, pp 99-100.
- We would have upheld the complaint on the basis that in quoting such a statement without qualification the article lacked balance
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Jonathan Mackenzie, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.