BOB HARRISON AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMESINTRODUCTION
The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Bob Harrison, of Karitane, Otago, about the editing of his letter, dated March 4, 2006, to the editor of the Otago Daily Times.
Mr Harrison had written a letter of about 200 words to the editor following a report in the Otago Daily Times on March 2 which quoted statements by Act leader Rodney Hide and National Member of Parliament Judith Collins in the privileged environment of Parliament relating to a Dunedin MP, David Benson-Pope. Mr Harrison wrote that the statements in the report either stated or implied that Mr Benson-Pope was a “liar, a bully and a pervert. These accusations, had they been made outside Parliament, would have been held to be slanderous, and subject to prosecution.” He wanted the newspaper to inform readers why MPs were given this “protection from prosecution not available to the people who put them in Parliament.”
He also sought explanation from the Otago Daily Times why, in the same March 2 edition, and under the heading “Fellow Teacher Put Through Hell,” it had given another critic of Mr Benson-Pope anonymity when reporting her allegations. He claimed the paper did not publish anonymous letters to the editor so granting anonymity for the news report implied “flagrant double standards.” Mr Harrison had headed his letter “Double Standards?” in capitals. Similarly, he had capitalised a phrase in the letter, “under the cloak of anonymity.”
Mr Harrison’s letter, in a slightly edited form, was published on March 8. The newspaper editor sought to answer Mr Harrison’s questions through a note at the end of the letter which read: “MPs are given parliamentary privilege so they can speak freely, without fear of defamation action. We agree to withhold names when asked to do so if we believe the issue is of over-riding importance. In the case you mention, we later published the teacher’s name in a followup report (ODT, 4.3.06).”
Mr Harrison complained to the editor after seeing his letter published on March 8 about changes made to his letter “without my permission” which he argued considerably diluted the thrust of the points he wished to make. The capitalised heading “Double Standards?” and the phrase, “under the cloak of anonymity,” had been omitted. “There is not much point in publishing readers’ letters if you can make changes which undermine or confuse the intention of the writer,” he wrote. He did not accept the editor’s explanation about parliamentary privilege. He also argued, when referring to the paper’s practice of withholding names on issues of over-riding importance, that it was more important that readers knew who was making serious allegations so that they could form their own opinions on the veracity and relevance of the views expressed.
On March 11, the editor responded in a note to correspondents: “As our rules for correspondence state, we do not enter into discussion on selection or editing of letters.” Mr Harrison then complained to the Press Council on March 24, stating that the editor’s note “implies to me the editor believes he has the right to make any alteration he wishes to any letter regardless of the effect of the writer’s intended emphasis or meaning. If editors do have such a right, it appears to fundamentally undermine the integrity of the whole concept of provision of space for readers to express their concerns.” He went on to say: “The right of readers to express their criticism of editors, without deletion or amendment, seems quite central to the concept of a genuinely ‘free press.’ ”
THE NEWSPAPER’S RESPONSE
Responding, the Otago Daily Times editor, Mr Robin Charteris, said the Press Council had always made it clear that the handling of letters to the editor was at the discretion of editors. He referred to the newspaper’s rules for letters, which said, inter alia:
1) The newspaper will abridge some letters that exceed length guidelines (normally 150 words)
2) The newspaper did not enter into discussion about selection or editing
3) Noms de plume were permitted for some letter writers, but only “where a suitable case for anonymity is clear.”
Mr Harrison’s letter was published substantially as received and the newspaper had never allowed correspondents to use their own styles of capitalising or italicising words or phrases for emphasis. As for the five words omitted - “under the cloak of anonymity” – Mr Charteris was unsure, given the length of time that had passed, if this was to abbreviate the already lengthy letter (about 200 words versus the recommended 150) or because the woman’s name had been published on March 4, two days after the report Mr Harrison had criticised. The name was published before Mr Harrison’s letter was received.
“I submit the purport of Mr Harrison’s letter was in no way changed by the deletion of five words,” Mr Charteris wrote. “As a responsible editor, I have no wish whatsoever to change a writer’s emphasis or meaning.”
In his right of reply, Mr Harrison claimed the letter was not published “substantially as received,” questioned why an editor should have the right to deny a correspondent to use capitals for emphasis and clarification, repeated his assertion about the right to know who is making complaints anonymously, claimed replacing his headline led readers away from the point he was making, rejected the editor’s answers to his questions and said he believed the deletion of all seven capitalised words was “clearly intended to identify the editor’s lack of consistency in deciding what readers are entitled to know.”
The Press Council has always maintained that it is the right of newspapers to publish or not to publish, and to edit or not to edit, letters sent to them for publication, providing the intended meaning is not changed. The omission of Mr Harrison’s suggested headline falls within that category. The deletion of the five other capitalised words does not affect the meaning of Mr Harrison’s letter because it is clear from other parts of the letter that he is complaining about the granting of anonymity to a complainant. Such editing is perfectly acceptable for an already-too-long letter. In any case, the point is moot because the teacher was named just two days later, and well before Mr Harrison’s letter was published.
It is not reasonable for Mr Harrison to insist on capitalisation. Taken to extremes, such liberties could render letters to the editor columns a hotch-potch of different styles which would adversely affect the legibility of an important public forum. Newspaper editors have to have the right to make their own rules. In any event, as the Press Council has noted before, following the rules should mean editing disagreements such as the above are less likely to occur, and Mr Harrison did not follow the rules. The newspaper’s policy not to engage in debate over editing had also been made clear.
Further, the newspaper was entitled to grant anonymity to the teacher in its article of March 2. The Press Council has not been made aware of the circumstances that led to the name being published soon after but, regardless, nothing suggests the newspaper did not act professionally and properly.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Penny Harding, Ruth Buddicom, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Alan Samson, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and John Gardner.