DAVE EVANS AGAINST THE OTAGO DAILY TIMES
Case Number: 3424
Council Meeting: 7 August 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Otago Daily Times
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Conflicts of Interest
Editorial Discretion / Freedom
- Dave Evans complains about an opinion column authored by ‘Civis’ in the Otago Daily Times (ODT) every Saturday. Although he references the column Invoking magic to save NZ (17 June 2023) he does not make a specific complaint about that piece, rather his general complaint is that Civis is published anonymously. Although the complaint raises a general issue, it also engages Media Council Principles (4) Comment and Fact, (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters and (10) Conflicts of Interest. The complaint is not upheld.
- Dave Evans complains about Civis, an anonymous opinion writer for the ODT. He states that Civis is clearly of the political left and writes very biased pieces about political matters. In support of this view, he points to three columns from 2017, 2020 and 2023, in addition to the column of 17 June 2023 that triggered this complaint. He considers that these columns demonstrate a consistent course of conduct by the OTD and Civis over at least seven years. The Council notes that the complaints about the three earlier columns are well out of the one month we allow for the initiation of complaints. However, we have considered them as part of this complaint on the basis that they are central to it.
- Mr Evans accepts, and defends, the right of individuals to have opinions and for these to be published in newspapers. However, he complains that Civis’s opinions are written under a nom de plume. This means readers have no idea who Civis is or if they have any connection to the centre-left parties they appear to support. Mr Evans finds this disturbing, particularly given Civis appears to become more vitriolic and critical of the centre-right every time there is a political campaign.
- Mr Evans considers that readers are entitled to know who Civis is and if they have any conflicts of interest. Mr Evans notes that electoral law ensures that election processes are transparent, fair and equitable and that the continued publication of Civis runs contrary to these principles. Electoral law requires that any promotion on behalf of any party must be authorised by that party and an individual named as being responsible.
- Mr Evans had raised this issue with the OTD in 2017, 2020 and again in 2023. He states that the ODT has previously accepted there might be issues around the continued publication of Civis and that it was to be the subject of discussion by the paper’s Board. However, no changes have been made. He notes a number of other letters to the editor that have raised similar concerns.
- Mr Evans considers that if the ODT cannot be totally transparent at a critical time in our democracy then it is not acting to the highest professional standards and readers are left with the perception that there is a lack of independence in their vital role in our democracy
- The ODT notes the previous correspondence it has had with Mr Evans, including a letter from him it published in the letters to the editor on 14 June 2017 (it published a further letter from Mr Evans on 13 August 2020). Its response to the June 2017 letter was “Our Passing Notes column has been written under the nom de plume Civis since August 10, 1878. It has been a proud tradition, but your points are noted”. Although six years have since passed, the ODT’s position has not changed.
- Civis is entitled to be left leaning and is entitled to express their opinions. Mr Evans has not pointed to anything that suggests Civis is misrepresenting facts, and the ODT is not attempting to manipulate election results through the medium of Passing Notes. Mr Evans does not like Civis’s opinions, but others take a different view. Civis has their defenders. Civis’s contribution is personally reviewed by the editor and amendments are made as required, as for any other opinion columnist. The ODT publishes opinion pieces by a range of people with different political viewpoints.
- Mr Evans has not pointed to anything that would support the view Civis has a conflict of interest, although the ODT acknowledges that his concern is primarily that such a conflict might exist. The ODT states that the column is reviewed each week by the editor to ensure its content is free of obligations, independent and uncompromised. Any potential conflicts are actively managed.
- The nub of the complaint is that Civis is an anonymous columnist. While most columnists and letter writers are identified in print, there are exceptions. It is a matter of editorial discretion as to when it may be granted. Readers must trust that the editor has granted anonymity for a reason and that any conflicts of interest will be managed. Passing Notes has been published for more than 100 years. In that time Civis has covered a wide range of topics and taken a wide range of political positions. Civis is meant to be provocative and to take a robust view on the issues of the day.
- Passing Notes is unusual in the modern media landscape. For this reason, particular care is taken to ensure the column meets editorial standards, while ensuring Civis can state their opinion. The continuing tradition of Passing Notes (which the ODT is proud of) has been discussed at Board level, however it remains a feature of the newspaper. Civis is only one of the opinion columns published by the OTD and Mr Evans is free to object to its views (as he has done previously by way of letters to the editor).
- As an opinion piece published in a newspaper Passing Notes is not subject to the Electoral Act. That Act’s provisions are aimed at the public statements made by political parties. Mr Evans may perceive Civis to have a political leaning, but Passing Notes is not a pulpit for any political party. The leanings of Civis are well-known to readers and the Passing Notes column is read with that knowledge. Readers, on the whole, respect and understand the tradition and history of Passing Notes and enjoy it as part of the rich tapestry of the history of the newspaper.
- This complaint is about whether it is in breach of Media Council principles for a newspaper to publish an anonymous opinion piece.
- Principle (4) Comment and Fact states that a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion and that opinions should be clearly presented as such and that the material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. Principle (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters states that opinion must be clearly identified as such and that, while foundations of fact pertain, balance is not essential.
- All parties agree that the Passing Notes column is opinion, that Civis in entitled to their opinion and that the ODT is entitled to publish it.
- The Media Council has considered all the material provided by Mr Evans including his suggestion that at least one of the Passing Notes columns was based on incorrect material facts. Mr Evans considers that the piece from 2017, among other things, implies that the Government led by John Key was corrupt. The Council considers that the opinions expressed in that piece (which focus on ethics and due process), while strong, have not been shown to be based on inaccurate material facts. At the time there were questions about the process involved in the Government’s agreement with Sky City in relation to the proposed convention centre. Civis was entitled to express their opinion.
- More generally, the Council considers that while that piece (and the others provided) are critical of right-leaning parties there has been no breach of Principle (4) or (5). We note that Mr Evans, and others, have had many opportunities to put their own views forward regarding Civis’s opinions by way of published letters to the editor. This suggests that there is a healthy debate about political matters, facilitated by the ODT.
- Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest states that to fulfil their watchdog role publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. Where an author’s link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared. We accept Mr Evans’ point that he is in no position to demonstrate whether there is (or has been) any conflict of interest in relation to the opinions expressed by Civis. We agree that is a consequence of the anonymity afforded to Civis.
- The ODT suggests that anonymity is within the bounds of its editorial discretion and that there is an element of trust involved. We agree. None of our principles directly address the appropriateness of an anonymous opinion piece. The practice was once common. Now it is less so. However, as noted in the Preamble to our principles, editors have the ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications and for adherence to the standards of ethical journalism which the Council upholds. This suggests that trust is an inherent part of the relationship between publications and their readership.
- We consider that publishing an anonymous opinion piece is within the bounds of editorial discretion. In this instance, the political opinions expressed by Civis are relevant to the exercise of this discretion, but they are not determinative of it. We do not think the approach in the Electoral Act 1993 is relevant. The relevant provisions of that Act appear to control electoral advertising. They do not set a standard for publication in newspapers during an election generally.
- Of course, every published piece must be written in accordance with Media Council principles. Anonymity does not obviate these requirements. There is always a risk of a conflict of interest (whether a piece is anonymous or not). However, Principle 10 is focused on news sources and we query whether it applies in the context of an opinion piece. Nonetheless, Principle 10 leaves the management of those conflicts to the publications themselves who are trusted to do so. If there is a concern about a conflict that can be raised with a publication directly and then to the Media Council in the normal way. In this case there is no complaint that Civis does have a conflict of interest, only that it is possible they might. Even if Civis was directly associated with a left-leaning political party we do not think this would be a breach of this Principle. Nobody should be prevented from having an opinion simply because of their association with a particular group. That is the essence of free speech. While knowing that a particular author holds a certain affiliation might affect the weight readers give to those opinions, it could equally be said that anonymity leads to those opinions being treated with significant caution. Ultimately, we consider that it is a decision for the ODT as to whether anonymity is a desirable element of this column.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Marie Shroff (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom