Case Number: 3425

Council Meeting: 7 August 2023

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Bias
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori


  1. On 3 April 2023, The Dominion Post published an article titled Rejection of Catholic policy a ‘good first step’. 
  2. Barrie Davis complained that the article breached Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Article

  1. The article reported the Vatican’s repudiation of the 15th century policy which allowed the “conquest, colonisation and subjugation” of indigenous people including Māori. The so-called Doctrine of Discovery was a series of papal declarations in the 1400s that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights said, “provided religious authority for Christian empires to invade and subjugate non-Christian lands, people and sovereign nations, imposed Christianity on these population, and claim their resources.”
  2. It reported a statement by Pope Francis that “never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
  3. The article reported comment from Aotearoa indigenous rights advocate, Tina Ngata that the Vatican needed to take ownership of the impacts of the doctrine and that the Crown also needed to reject the doctrine and remove its application in our legal frameworks.
  4. Taranaki Whanui chairperson, Kara Puketapu-Dentice was reported as saying that he welcomed the Vatican move and said the whanui would be working with the Catholic archdiocese in Wellington to seek meaning to the words and to look for the return of Catholic lands in Wellington and Upper Hutt.
  5. Comment was also obtained from the Professor Claire Charters, the Indigenous Rights governance partner for Te Kāhui Tika Tangata | Human Rights Commission, who said the rejection showed the Vatican was finally acknowledging its legacy of racism and dispossession and that the doctrine was a source of inequality that Māori continue to experience today.

The Complaint

  1. Barrie Davis complained that the article breached Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance because it made a biased and false claim that the Doctrine of Discovery “allowed the conquest, colonisation and subjugation of indigenous people including Māori.” 
  2. Dr Davis presented numerous links to historical research to make his case that the doctrine had little impact on the colonisation of New Zealand, given that this country was colonised around 400 years after the doctrine was released and predominantly by Britain, at a time when Catholic beliefs had little sway. 
  3. The article quoted “only three Māori with a vested interest in this claim” which he said had been “refuted” by historian Dr Paul Moon who had written there was strong evidence against claims that the Doctrine played any role in Britain’s “intervention in New Zealand.” 
  4. He believed that Dominion Post needed to provide balance by reporting the views of Dr Moon.

The Response

  1. In its initial response to correspondence from Dr Davis the Dominion Post editor said at that stage it was not doing any more on the topic but may in future and would consider then speaking with Dr Moon. 
  2. In a further response Stuff said Dr Davis’s complaint was without merit. The Catholic Church acknowledged the Doctrine of Discovery allowed “conquest, colonisation and subjugation” of indigenous people during the expansion [of] Christianity. Catholic missionaries were active in New Zealand from the late 1830s and were present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. 
  3. Dr Davis cited Dr Moon as having a dissenting view of how the Doctrine may have impacted Māori during the colonisation of New Zealand, but he appeared to be a lone voice against the weight of contrary academic research. 
  4. The story quoted Professor Charters whose credentials made her an expert on the subject and Tina Ngata had spoken on the topic at a United Nations forum in 2018. Kara Puketapu-Dentice had given specific examples of the Catholic church being in possession of Māori land. 
  5. Referring to Dr Davis’s comment that the article quoted no one else but three Maoris, Stuff said “Dr Davis appears to disregard the views of the experts quoted, based on their race.”

The Discussion

Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

  1. Considering the first arm of Principle (1) Accuracy, Dr Davis disputed the statement made in the introduction that the Vatican’s rejection of the Doctrine allowed the conquest and subjugation of indigenous people including Māori.
  2. The article reported that the Vatican has acknowledged the harmful impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery on indigenous peoples and the Media Council can see there may be room for debate as to the Doctrine’s connection to Aotearoa New Zealand. But this was a straightforward article on the repudiation of the Doctrine and local reaction to it.
  3. The Media Council does not believe the article was inaccurate. The comment, that the Doctrine had affected Māori, reflected the broad intent of the church’s statement, an accompanying statement by New Zealand’s bishops referencing Māori, and global reportage that mentioned colonisation in more recent centuries. It also captured the opinion of Professor Charters who was reported later in the story as saying: “It is a racist doctrine and a source of inequality that Māori continue to experience today.” 
  4. The comments made by Kara Puketapu-Dentice and Tina Ngata underlined the same point.
  5. The Media Council also rejects Dr Davis’s complaint that it was not fair and balanced because it quoted “only three Māori with a vested interest in this claim” and that it should have featured Māori who were not “radical” or other commentators.
  6. All three of those spoken to have the mana, knowledge and background to speak with authority on the subject and there is no basis to support Dr Davis’s suggestion they were radical or that the article was not fair and balanced because they were Māori with a personal stake.
  7. Professor Charters has expertise on indigenous peoples’ rights in international and constitutional law, including the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Kara Puketapu-Dentice (who died three months after the story was published) was a Te Ati Awa leader and a former Secretary of Māori Affairs. Tina Ngata is an indigenous rights activist and writer.
  8. The Media Council acknowledges that there are differing views on the Doctrine of Discovery. However, the article published by the Dominion Post simply focused on the Vatican’s rejection of the Doctrine and included some local reaction to that. It is accurate reporting, and the issue of the facts and nature of the colonisation of New Zealand is a long running issue, with much ongoing debate.
  9. Decision: Accordingly, the article did not breach any Media Council Principles. 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.


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