DIEUWE DE BOER AGAINST THE SPINOFF
Case Number: 3401
Council Meeting: 8 May 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: The Spinoff
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Ruling Categories: Gender
- On 20 February 2023 The Spinoff published online a book extract entitled Women and the alt-right in New Zealand by Byron C. Clark. Below this headline and before the text of the extract, the following appeared: a photo of the author, described as a ‘guest writer’; Creative New Zealand and Unity books logos indicating support; an image of the new book’s cover; and the following words - “An abridged excerpt from Byron C. Clark’s new book ‘Fear – New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists’”. The complaint is not upheld.
- The chapter excerpt contains Byron C. Clark’s analysis of the part women play in the alternative right movement in New Zealand. The article draws on various theories and characterisations of women’s roles, such as the traditional wife and mother, and the part played by feminism and discusses the interaction of those with the alternative right. His conclusion is that although women are less visible than men in the movement in New Zealand than they are overseas, that women leaders and beliefs about women’s roles also play an important part in the alternative right movement in this country.
- The complainant says that the article lists several women by name, and others by association, as leaders of the New Zealand alternative right movement. He cites a Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of alternative right, that its core belief is white nationalism. He also says that no definition is given by the author of the term alternative right or alt-right, and no evidence is provided of the women named being white nationalists; or of them being contacted for their response to assertions in the article. He also argues against other ideas and assumptions expressed in the article.
- The complainant says that although the article was described as an excerpt from a book, the editor must nevertheless take responsibility for the published text. He says it is presented as “journalistic style research and fact”.
- Mr de Boer complains on grounds of accuracy, fairness and balance, citing failure to present various ideas fairly; lack of facts to support the article’s assertions; and failure to provide those named, who are said to be leaders of the alternative right, with a fair opportunity to respond. He asserts that saying people are alternative right amounts to calling them white supremacists and that this is in breach of the Media Council’s principles.
- The Spinoff responds that the article is clearly marked as an abridged, edited book extract. An extract is, by definition, not the whole set of facts. The book cover and its title are the lead image. Extracts are commonly used to give a preview of local book releases, allowing those interested to read the book for more detail. Considerable care is taken with selection and editing of extracts. The books editor says: “The Spinoff’s book section is careful when selecting excerpts in order not to republish work that does not reach our standards. This is why we rarely republish excerpts from self-published books as we cannot ensure high standards were met by the book’s publisher in the first instance.” The extract in question is from a book published by Harper Collins, a well-known and respected local publisher who “legalled” the book before publication.
- The author of the article, Byron Clark, responded to some of the more detailed points in the complaint. He contests the complainant’s view that ‘alternative right’ and ‘white supremacism’ are coterminous. He notes his book identifies a new kind of right-wing politics emerging recently, which is distinct from the mainstream and far right movements which preceded it. He also cites published sources which support his description of the women named in the article as having views which link them to the alternative right. He says there are conflicting sources on the definition of white supremacy, and argues that right wing views on race, immigration, religion and feminism are commonly entangled.
- In the Preamble to its Statement of Principles the Media Council says it is “concerned with promoting media freedom and maintaining the press in accordance with the highest professional standards”. It also states that “There is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression and the public interest.” The complainant has cited Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. Also relevant are Principles (4) Comment and Fact and (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters.
- The principal issue for the complainant appears to be the naming in the article of several women as leaders of the alternative right movement, without supporting facts or an opportunity to for the individuals concerned to respond. The complainant sees a direct link between ‘alternative right’ and ‘white supremacist’. The author of the article contests this link and says that the definition of alternative right has been, and continues to be, debatable.
- The Council does not make a judgement on this matter of opinion. What the situation demonstrates clearly is that it is indeed a matter of opinion, and subject to ongoing public debate. Principle (1) provides that “In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long running issues…”. Freedom of expression and debate is an important value in a democracy. The opinions expressed in the excerpt are a matter of ongoing public debate. The Council therefore cannot uphold the complaint on Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
- The question of whether the named people should have been given an opportunity to respond is also at issue. If the piece had been news reportage, there would have been a case for contacting the named women for their comments to ensure that the underlying facts were correct, or that there was an opportunity to tell a different side of the story.
- The Spinoff has made a good case for the Council to consider book extracts as raising different expectations in readers. The piece was strongly flagged as a book extract and was clearly an opinion piece. It is the author’s interpretation of a complex subject he has extensively researched. The Spinoff argues that it is normal practice to publish extracts, that it has careful processes surrounding selection and editing. Readers are quite capable of seeing extracts for what they are – a previews of new books, lifted from a wider context, to allow them to follow up and read more if they wish. Spinoff believes readers will see book extracts in this way, rather than as “journalistic style research and facts”, as suggested by the complainant.
- The Council agrees with The Spinoff that reproducing book extracts is common practice, and that they raise expectations different from those applying to the publication’s own original editorial content. The Council believes it would be invidious to freedom of expression to suggest that potentially controversial book extracts, in effect opinion pieces that some readers may object to, should not be published. This does not mean the Council would endorse publication of clearly inaccurate material or material clearly in breach of its Principles, because it is contained in a stand-alone book extract. Editors remain responsible for what they publish, and for compliance with the Media Council’s Principles. In this case, it is clear careful checking was done, and the book had also been given a pre-publication check by a reputable publisher.
- Principle (4) Comment and Fact says: “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which the opinion is based should be accurate.” In the Council’s view, the presentation of the extract clearly signalled that it was the views of the author of a newly published book; and although some facts are contested, there is no clear information to suggest that the excerpt contained materially inaccurate facts.
- Principle (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters provides inter alia that opinion should be “clearly identified” and that “balance is not essential”. In the Council’s view the article in question complies with those standards.
- In summary, the Council does not uphold the complaint on Principle (1), Principle (4) or Principle (5).
Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher, Hank Schouten, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Katrina Bennett, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom.