CHRISTOPHER ROBERTSON AGAINST FISH & GAME NEW ZEALAND
Chris Robertson complained to the Press Council about a feature article “A Fair Australian Advance?” published in Fish & Game New Zealand in Issue 66. His complaint was the second received by the Council in respect of this article (see also Case No: 2106)
The complaint is not upheld.
The feature article is about what the writer perceives to be problematic pressure being placed on New Zealand rivers as a result of increasing numbers of international anglers coming here to fish.
It is evident from the tenor of the article that the writer is adopting a provocative stance and that the accompanying sidebar to the article is similarly inclined.
The underlying claim of the writer is that “New Zealand’s natural capital” is under pressure as a consequence of increasing numbers of visitors, and that the concerns about the effect of this burden have not yet been adequately addressed by way of regulatory controls. He makes particular mention of Australians being the largest group of registered overseas anglers and contends that there is a perception in some parts that they are somehow “ripping off the system” by taking advantage of cheap licences and New Zealand’s lack of controls to protect the fishing resource. He makes explicit his criticism of the relevant New Zealand authorities.
In taking a position as the ‘devil’s advocate’, the writer urges the authorities to consider the perceived problem and he gives illustrations of some of the factors which he asserts have contributed to that problem. He mentions, for example, that guides from overseas do not have to pay to bring groups here. He makes suggestions as to how some of the difficulties could be ameliorated or eliminated. He proposes, for example, that special licenses could be issued for back-country fishing by tourists.
As a series of sidebars to the article, a NIWA scientist provides data drawn from a survey of fishing licences which have been issued and the scientist provides ‘comment’ in relation to that data. It appears from his comment that the data is meant to support the claims being made by the writer of the feature article.
Notwithstanding the provocative tenor of the article and accompanying sidebar, the writer concludes by stating: “It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest all Aussies are ripping off the system and behaving badly, that’s not the case and something all of those who spoke to Fish & Game were quick to point out. In fact, most don’t even blame them for the issues raised because they stem from our lax laws.”
Mr Robertson complains that he found the article racist and capable of inciting racism; that it was blatantly anti-Australian and/or biased and that there had been misuse and/or selective use of statistics to justify the writer’s stance.
Implicit in his complaint are assertions that the article breached the Principles of the Press Council pertaining to accuracy, discrimination and subterfuge.
The Editor’s Response
The editor maintained that the article was well researched, factually accurate, and not misleading by commission or omission. He believes that the conclusions reached were balanced and fair to the majority of Australian fishermen. He stands by the use of the statistics published. He rejects the contentions that the article was racist, biased, blatantly anti-Australian or that it incited racism.
The editor conceded that “[U]navoidably, some of our Australian brethren will still feel incensed by the Kiwi sentiment that’s been raised but……they need to understand that the resource belongs to us, not them and its future is in our hands, not theirs”. He defended the tone of the article and maintained that the writer of the article stressed that many of the problems were attributable to the lax regulatory frameworks in New Zealand.
The editor also advised that Kiwis and Australians have subsequently used the magazine’s Letters to the Editor pages to express their views about the issues raised in the article. He noted that Mr Robertson had also availed himself of that avenue and that he had been informed that his letter would be published in Issue 68.
The article raises issues about the impact of tourism on New Zealand’s natural resources in a deliberately provocative manner. It focuses on Australians as the largest group coming to fish in New Zealand waters.
The article has demonstrably aroused some strong reactions. The editor advised that he had received (at 7 April 2010) ten letters to the editor regarding the article. He said that all of those letters have been or will be published. The Council notes that in Issue 68, seven letters directly referring to the article were published (as well as another letter in relation to an editorial in Issue 67 which dealt with the same issues).
The Council is of the view that this shows the apparent usefulness in the airing of the issues for debate / discussion in a specialist magazine. There has been, and is, ensuing dialogue about the issues raised.
It is also clear from the letters published that there have been some correspondents (including Mr Robertson) who objected to the tone of the article, as well as other correspondents who did not object to the tone. To some extent, that is an expected outcome where a devil’s advocate stance has been adopted by a writer. It may also be a corollary of the free expression of views – particularly where there is an element of admitted subjectivity involved.
The Press Council has a number of competing factors to take account of in a complaint such as this. It must have proper regard to these inherent tensions. The Council notes that the major criticism in the article is reserved for the New Zealand authorities. It also notes that the writer uses a particular ‘stance’ to reach that end. The Council recognises that at least some readers have found this ‘stance’ offensive.
Any editor must remain cognisant of his readers’ views. It is pleasing to see here that the editor has ensured that the letters column airs some competing views.
There is pattern of a ‘robust’ character to Australasian dialogue and it would be wrong for this Council not to also have regard to that reality. Mr Robertson identified particular phrases which he found particularly objectionable but in the context of an article which is demonstrably trying to provoke comment (including argument) and response, we do not uphold his claims. Indeed the correspondence between Mr Robertson and the editor in relation to this complaint itself reflects the mutually robust character of such Australasian argument.
The Council agrees that the article adopts a forthright tone when addressing questions such as fishing etiquette or accepted standards of back-country behaviour. The need for attention to such matters also appears to be implicitly acknowledged by Mr Robertson who, helpfully, advocates some practices which could be adopted in New Zealand to reduce some of the problems identified. The strong line adopted by the writer has resulted in useful reader participation in an important dialogue. Mr Robertson is also contributing to that important dialogue.
For the reasons set out above, the Council does not uphold the complaint under the principles of accuracy or discrimination.
In relation to the alleged misleading use of the statistics (principle relating to subterfuge), the Council notes that these statistics were taken from data obtained in the 2007-2008 National Angler Survey which was undertaken by a third party. While the statistics did not appear to the Council to be particularly relevant to the matters being traversed in the article, the Council does not find sufficiency in his complaint that they were misleading. The Council therefore also does not uphold Mr Robertson’s objection to the use of the statistics.
The Council makes one final observation. While neither of the complaints about this article has been upheld, each complainant raised important matters for the Council’s consideration. Any editor will know that care needs to be applied when adopting a tone which might be humorous to some but at the same time perhaps offensive to others. There are not simple or hard and fast rules which can be applied either by this Council or by an editor. Necessarily wider issues sometimes also have to be taken into account.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.