DALLAS BARNETT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2831

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Headlines and Captions
Offensive Language
Politicians

Overview

[1] On 27 September 2019 the New Zealand Herald published an opinion piece authored by Mike Hosking entitled ‘Now we know just how dangerous Green MP Julie Anne Genter is’. The focus of the piece was on Ms Genter’s refusal to release, under the Official Information Act 1982, a letter she authored. It is suggested by Mr Hosking that this letter indicates that Ms Genter had threatened to bring the current Labour led Government down by “quitting and pulling the Government apart”. Mr Hosking suggests that the refusal to release the letter is evidence of surreptitious, or Machiavellian behaviour by Ms Genter and coupled with the “economic madness” of her policies “goes a long way to warning the rest of us just how dangerous she really is”.

The Complaint

[2] Dallas Barnett complains that the piece was designed to instil rage in the coalition government’s detractors and to prompt targeted harassment and threats against Ms Genter. He suggests that similar media activities overseas have led to tragic consequences and references the murder of Jo Cox, a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament who was killed in the lead up to the Brexit referendum. He suggests that the treatment of Ms Cox by various media outlets in the United Kingdom led her killer to target her. He considers that Mr Hosking’s piece is in a similar vein and contains dangerous rhetoric, which is “irresponsible, immoral and dangerous”.

[3] Mr Barnett considers that the media are very influential and have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the general public and, in particular, public figures. He further suggests that the rise in far-right rhetoric and nationalism is fuelled by publication of this sort of opinion piece. He finishes by calling the culture at New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) (and the character of some people who work there) into question as promoting misogyny and bullying, stating that the opinion piece in question is a perfect example of that toxic culture being weaponised.

[4] Mr Barnett considers that Media Council principle 5 (Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters); and principle 6 (Headlines and Captions) have been breached.

The Response

[5] Mr Barnett’s complaint was considered by the New Zealand Herald’s senior newsroom editor. He states that the article is clearly presented as comment, with the author’s name used in the headline, a photo byline and the word ‘comment’ stated in bold capitals at the start of the article; the headline accurately conveys the article’s concluding remark.

[6] In his initial response to Mr Barnett the editor observed that while Mr Hosking is “not everyone’s cup of tea he is entitled to his opinion” proceeding to reject the assertion that the article in any way encourages physical harm against Ms Genter. In his formal response to the Media Council the editor elaborates on these points. He notes that the piece is clearly presented as a comment piece and that the complaint does not challenge any of the facts contained within it.

[7] The editor considers that the use of the words ‘surreptitious’ and ‘Machiavellian’ were criticisms of a government minister’s professional conduct. This is something about which Mr Hosking is perfectly entitled to express an opinion. The language fell well short of being incendiary and there was nothing in the column to instil rage, or to prompt harassment of an elected official.

[8] The editor suggests that is a ‘long-bow’ to draw an analogy with the murder of Jo Cox noting that there was no evidence in that case that the killer was radicalised by the mainstream media. Any suggestion that that event should prevent or restrict media scrutiny and analysis of New Zealand politicians’ conduct is unrealistic.

[9] The editor notes that Mr Barnett is entitled to his opinion about Mr Hosking and other employees of NZME, but there is nothing toxic about the column and it falls well short of bullying.

The Decision

[10] Principle 5 requires that opinion must be clearly identified as such, and requirements for a foundation of fact pertain. Principle 6 requires that headlines should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

[11] Here the piece is clearly labelled ‘Comment’. The views put forward by the author are based on the publicly available facts relating to the letter authored by Ms Genter. This is a point Mr Barnett impliedly accepts as there is no suggestion in his complaint that the facts underpinning the piece are incorrect.

[12] As noted by the editor, the Council has said a number of times previously that readers do not have the right not to be offended. While the Council accepts that some people will be offended by the Mr Hosking’s comments, there has been no breach of the Media Council’s principles in this instance. It is an opinion piece, properly based upon facts. The headline accurately reflects Mr Hosking’s view and the substance of the piece.

Principles 5 and 6 – Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters; Headlines and Captions: Not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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