DAVE HANSFORD AGAINST NATIONAL BUSINESS REVIEWBackground
In his regular Media Watch column in the National Business Review of April 24, 2008, David Cohen discussed the issue of comments carried on websites. He cited an apology carried in AUT Media’s online Hot Topic feature and subsequent comments. The apology to the Listener and its editor referred to the magazine’s then Ecologic contributor Dave Hansford and his departure from the magazine following a column in which Mr Hansford argued that climate change deniers had been given favourable treatment in mainstream media. Mr Cohen’s article said “this was not the first time Mr Hansford has parted company with an editor in the wake of delivering problematic copy having to do with environmental matters.”
He said Mr Hansford had had “sharp differences recently with Forest and Bird after it declined to use a piece he had contributed” and over the treatment of previous pieces written for them including a piece about NIWA scientists which had led to an apology and retraction.
Mr Hansford complained to the Press Council on August 28. He said Mr Cohen’s comments about him were inaccurate and “motivated by an intention to discredit my professional conduct.” He said the article contravened the Press Council’s Principles on accuracy and fairness, privacy, confidentiality, comment and fact and subterfuge.
The article had created the impression his piece had been rejected by Forest and Bird because it was erroneous when it was not published for other, legitimate editorial reasons. It was also erroneous to suggest that the apology for the NIWA piece was because of any inaccuracy by him. NIWA had taken issue with a quotation. There had been no retraction.
Mr Hansford said Mr Cohen had made no reference to many magazines with which Mr Hansford had only harmonious relationships.
The complainant said that the column had portrayed him as unreliable and unprofessional and was motivated by malice and retribution for criticism Mr Hansford had made about the NZ Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC).
The fact that Mr Cohen made his remarks in an opinion piece did not exempt him from the need for accuracy.
Mr Hansford claimed that in obtaining e-mail correspondence between Mr Hansford and Forest and Bird Mr Cohen had contravened the principle of privacy.
NBR said that the controversy over the Listener, its relations with Mr Hansford and how that matter became a subject for online comment was a fitting subject for the Media Watch column. The claims that Mr Cohen was somehow acting on behalf of the NZCSC or was intending to call Mr Hansford’s professional conduct or credibility in question were not justified. Mr Cohen had no professional contacts with members of NZCSC.
In the course of researching the column Mr Cohen was entitled to examine Mr Hansford’s other local journalistic activities. No subterfuge was used in obtaining correspondence between Mr Hansford and Forest and Bird and it was relevant. The column did not quote directly from the correspondence.
The NIWA related article had prompted an apology.
Mr Hansford cast doubt on the claim by NBR that Cohen had no contact with NZCSC, two members of which regularly wrote for National Business Review. He said he was in no doubt the purpose of the column was to serve retribution on behalf of the NZCSC. The e-mail correspondence was not relevant but simply obtained to discredit him.
Climate change is an emotional issue with partisan views on all sides of the argument. The manner in which the discussions are conducted is a legitimate subject for comment and it might be expected that any such comment would include an examination of the backgrounds of those involved, indicating the level of commitment existing in the debate. Columnists, including Mr Hansford, who express strong opinions, may expect to receive opinionated reactions.
Mr Cohen was not going beyond the bounds of normal journalism in obtaining correspondence concerning Mr Hansford and there is no evidence to suggest that any subterfuge was involved. The matters were of a professional rather than personal nature and Mr Hansford’s privacy was not substantially breached.
There is nothing in the Media Watch column or subsequent correspondence to substantiate Mr Hansford’s belief that Mr Cohen was acting out of malice on behalf of members of the NZCSC. To suggest that he must have known two particular individuals because they wrote for the same publication is to draw a very long bow. It is by no means uncommon for contributors to work for publications for prolonged periods without ever meeting their fellow writers.
The Press Council’s principle concerning fact and opinion is intended to emphasise that publications must maintain a discernible distinction between the two. In this column Mr Cohen’s opinions are clearly stated and his main interest, expressed in reasonable terms, is the nature of comment encountered on websites. On climate change he expresses himself as “cheerfully agnostic” although he adds “apocalyptic scenarios” entertained by the media “have often not stood up well.”
However, he does raise the matter of Mr Hansford’s professional relationships with publications. It is difficult to see much damage accruing from the implication that there had been some disagreements between Mr Hansford and his editors at Forest and Bird. Such disagreements, often vigorously expressed, are part of normal life in the media. Nor, in the context of the piece, was it unfair not to point out that he had harmonious relationships with other editors.
But there is also the suggestion that Mr Hansford’s work had been inaccurate and had required correction. Media Watch does not cite a reason why one piece was not published but the context could lead a reader to believe there were problems with it of an editorial nature. Mr Hansford says the piece was declined because the interview subject was not sufficiently interesting and the NBR does not challenge this.
The Media Watch column does specify that Forest and Bird had to apologise over a NIWA piece written by Mr Hansford. The complainant says the apology was made as a rebuttal of a quotation but does not deny that some kind of printed redress was occasioned by the piece. It is clear that at least some of Mr Hansford’s work involves taking a position and such journalism carries the risk of provoking a response. The Council is not in a position to judge the exact nature of the NIWA response, particularly since Mr Hansford did not provide details of the apology and background to it, but Mr Cohen was entitled to point out that there had been one. He could not have been expected to go into great detail on the terminology.
The complaints concerning inaccuracy, privacy, confidentiality, comment and fact and subterfuge are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and Lynn Scott.
Penny Harding and Alan Samson took no part in the consideration of this complaint.