BERNARD MORAN AGAINST THE SPINOFF

Case Number: 3035

Council Meeting: APRIL 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Spinoff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists Opinion
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

Overview

[1] On 8 March 2021 The Spinoff ran an opinion piece by Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa, headlined Why we need safe areas outside abortion clinics. It was timed to coincide with the first reading of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill, which would establish safe areas outside abortion clinics to protect those seeking abortions from harassment or intimidation. When people talked about their abortions almost everyone mentioned harassment, Ms Bellamak said. Whether they encountered it or not, they feared it.

[2] Anti-abortion harassment included gory posters. Sometimes actions took a “dramatic turn” with screams of “Mummy, please don’t kill me”. People were pelted with baby doll parts daubed with red paint. Underlying all this was the ever-present possibility of violence, she said. Across the world, even in Aotearoa, “pro-life” extremists had committed violent acts, including 11 homicides in the US.

[3] The article examined the free speech issues relating to the Bill and also what Ms Bellamak thought anti-abortion protesters’ motivations were.

The Complaint

[4] Bernard Moran complained the allegations in the article were extremely damaging to the reputation of anti-abortion protesters. He noted that he was a founding member of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and a former National President of Voice for Life, so was familiar with people involved in anti-abortion protests. But he was making the complaint as an individual.

[5] Similar allegations had been raised in an earlier article he objected to. “On 6 March 2019, Terry Bellamak had written that anti-abortion protesters shouted at women going about their legal business: ‘whore’, ‘murderer!’ and threw plastic model foetuses at them,” Mr Moran said. He emailed The Spinoff saying the allegations were false and asking for a right of rebuttal.The Spinoff declined his request.

[6] In the most recent article, published on 8 March 2021, The Spinoff had accepted Ms Bellamak’s “damaging allegations” without questioning her or anti-abortion groups about whether this had actually happened in New Zealand, Mr Moran said.

[7] Mr Moran said Voice for Life was not named, but readers would assume “we were those horrible people.” The group’s reputation was trashed with no chance for rebuttal.

[8] Pro-life groups had put up with this “damaging smear tactic” for decades and never got any credible evidence about who was doing it, when or where. He had asked for evidence from the Abortion Supervisory Committee who had made similar accusations, and when they did not provide evidence asked for an Ombudsman investigation which came up with “vague verbal complaints” from abortion clinic staff. He had surveyed Voice for Life branches twice and found no evidence. Mr Moran said he could never recall an approach from the police to the organisations he had been involved with, despite allegations which clearly constituted a public nuisance, disorder or assault.

[9] Mr Moran also included a link to a blog sympathetic to Mr Moran’s position, written by Karl du Fresne, which covered his complaint about the article.

The Response

[10] In his initial response to Mr Moran, Toby Manhire said the piece was clearly labelled as opinion, it drew on the writer’s own and associates’ experience and it was noted that some of the wider context she drew on was from “across the world”.

[11] In a further response he said he was disinclined to reopen correspondence with Mr Moran partly because he immediately forwarded responses to a blogger for publication.

[12] He forwarded comments from Ms Bellamak which said that the complaint was about something that she had not claimed: “That these things happened in NZ.” The link that supported the claims about the behaviour of anti-abortion protesters was from a US publication and clearly described actions that occurred in the US, Ms Bellamak said. Mr Moran was well aware of this because he claimed she had used the word “whore” in her description. That word did not appear inThe Spinoff article, but did appear in the linked article.

[13] In a final comment, Mr Moran said he was referring to Ms Bellamak’s 2019 piece which said: “When anti-abortion protesters target pregnant people entering abortion clinics with shouts of ‘whore’ and ‘murderer’ and throw plastic foetuses at them, that is abortion stigma.” There was no reference to America in her current piece. Readers would naturally assume that she was writing about New Zealand anti-abortion protesters, he said.

The Decision

[14] This decision only deals with the 8 March 2021 story. Debate about the 2019 story Mr Moran objected to is only considered as background.

[15] Mr Moran did not complain under any particular principle, but the essence of his complaint seems to be captured under Principle 4 which 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.”

[16] The article in question is clearly marked as opinion, so there is no requirement for balance, and Ms Bellamak is perfectly entitled to advocate for her point of view strongly, as Mr Moran acknowledges. Although Mr Moran seems to think it was directed at Voice for Life, the story does not mention that organisation, or indeed any anti-abortion organisation.

[17] Factual statements on which opinions are based are required to be accurate, and this is the nub of the complaint. Ms Bellamak says her opinion piece did not state that the things she wrote about happened in New Zealand. There was a reference in the story to violent acts “across the world” and the link in the paragraph about extreme acts of protest (including pelting people with doll parts covered in red paint) took readers to a story showing that this had occurred in the US, although the Council notes that not all readers would click on this.

[18] The Media Council considers that some readers might think the more extreme activities mentioned in the article happened in New Zealand. The story starts by talking about a New Zealand Bill to prevent people seeking abortions from being confronted by “angry mobs”, so this was clearly pertaining to the local situation. New Zealand is referenced in two of the four paragraphs describing the most extreme protests (when referring to the use of gory posters and violence). The story also said: “In a few weeks, anti-abortion forces will go along to the select committee considering the safe areas bill and tell it, ‘Oh no, anti-abortion violence only happens in other countries. New Zealand is different.’ Alas, New Zealand isnot different” This last statement linked to an article reporting on an attack on Greens co-leader, James Shaw, by an anti-abortion protester. This attack did not take place near a clinic. While the Media Council is prepared to allow a lot of leeway on articles that are clearly opinion, the principles require comment to be based on accurate material facts andThe Spinoff and author have provided no evidence that the most extreme acts described in the piece occurred at New Zealand clinics. The complainant’s concerns therefore need to be taken seriously given the repeated references to New Zealand. The piece comes very close to relying on claims that cannot be substantiated.


[19] However, the article made it clear this piece was written by someone who was a pro-choice campaigner. It was opinion bordering on advocacy, and readers would realise that a robust piece such as this would choose to present facts in a way that backed up its point of view. Ms Bellamak based much of her piece on what she has been told about the feelings of those confronted by protesters while seeking abortions, and there is no suggestion this is not relevant to the New Zealand situation. AlthoughThe Spinoff and Ms Bellamak agree that the most dramatic examples given in the story are from overseas, the Media Council cannot be sure that confronting protest activities have not happened in this country. Parliament has also been concerned enough about the local situation to initiate the new Bill, so it is reasonable to assume there are concerns about the impact of protesters outside abortion clinics. The piece also gave the reader some indication that the actions referred to and concerns expressed were part of an international picture, although not as much as it could have.

[20] Taking all this into account, and despite the concerns expressed above, the complaint is not upheld.

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

Katrina Bennett stood down to maintain a public member majority.