The Press Council has not upheld a complaint from the Egg Producers Federation concerning an editorial published by the Manawatu Standard on March 26.

The Egg Producers Federation initially complained to the Manawatu Standard that the editorial referring to the treatment of battery hens was inaccurate and unbalanced. Specifically, the federation complained about the writer’s reference to “de-beaked” and “de-clawed” birds and his claim that the caged birds were “loaded” with antibiotics. The federation also complained that the editorial made inappropriate and inflammatory comments in support of raids on battery hen sheds.

The newspaper acknowledged in an editorial on 5 April that chickens were not de-clawed or de-beaked, but instead had their beaks trimmed. The editorial also acknowledged that egg-laying hens were not routinely fed antibiotics. The federation was not satisfied with the newspaper’s response.

The Complaint
On 23 April, the Egg Producers Federation complained to the Press Council that it was unable to accept the newspaper’s “correction” because it had failed to apologise for glaring inaccuracies and lack of balance. It said the tone and content of the follow-up editorial were “belligerent” and the newspaper had continued to publish false and misleading claims about sickness among caged chickens that would be alarming to its readers.

The federation said that the newspaper’s March 26 editorial had published a number of misleading and damaging statements about the welfare of caged egg-laying hens and had made statements in support of illegal property attacks which could place its members at risk.

It said it was absurd to claim that birds were de-beaked, as birds could not eat without beaks. However, beak tipping was common throughout the industry and was beneficial for birds because it prevented feather pecking and cannibalism.

The claim that the industry “de-clawed’ birds would have horrified readers, and was nonsense and unsubstantiated. The federation said it did not support the forced removal of bird claws.

Antibiotics were an accepted and necessary feature of farming life worldwide and were used for the health and welfare of sick animals.

The federation complained that the industry had not been consulted before the claims were published and the newspaper had deliberately misled readers.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor of the Manawatu Standard said the comments made in the editorial about methods used in the poultry industry were the opinion of the editorial writer and clearly expressed as such on a page marked as opinion and bearing the writer’s name and picture.

The editor acknowledged there were a number of minor errors in the comments and, in line with the newspaper’s policy, these were corrected as soon as practicable on the opinion page where the original editorial ran. The editor said he defended the writer’s right to express an opinion, but accepted that it must be based on facts.

He said the March 26 editorial was making the point that animal rights activists risked losing support if they didn’t take notice of where they had a point and where they didn’t. The editorial described raiding battery hen sheds as the type of protest action against animal cruelty that many people would support. He said it was not urging people to attack farmers, but referred to attacking battery hen farming.

The newspaper offered the Egg Producers Federation the opportunity to write a letter to the editor to present an alternative viewpoint to the editorial. This offer was not taken up.

The newspaper suggested to the federation that the editorial writer and a photographer be allowed to visit a battery hen farming operation to report on the egg production process. The federation was opposed to the editorial writer being involved.

The Egg Producers Federation’s complaint to the Press Council was made on the grounds of fairness and accuracy, but the organisation appears also to see the newspaper editorial as a piece of reporting on the industry and subject to the obligations of balance.

An editorial is one of the sections of a newspaper in which a writer can freely express an opinion – even a controversial opinion. The Press Council upholds that right so long as the opinion is clearly expressed as opinion and is not based on error. The Press Council would, however, like to see a clearer differentiation between editorials and opinion columns in the Manawatu Standard.

Differences of opinion remain over practices in the poultry industry. The Federation was given the opportunity to write a letter to the editor expressing its views and the newspaper suggested sending the editorial writer and a photographer to examine a battery hen shed. Neither opportunity was taken up.

There were a number of errors in the March 26 editorial, which the writer claimed were the result of relying on second-hand information. The errors were promptly corrected and the Press Council determines that the corrections were adequate and does not uphold the complaint concerning the adequacy of the correction.

Corrections do not necessarily mean that a complaint will not be upheld on the basis of accuracy as to the facts on which an opinion is based. The issue is one of materiality. This is a borderline case, but on balance the Council determined that the errors were not material enough to uphold in this case.

On the question of raids on poultry farms, the editorial urged animal rights activists to stick to the point when protesting. The Press Council considers that, while the editorial suggested that battery hen sheds were clear targets for protest and also that people would support that kind of pressure going on the poultry industry, it stopped short of encouraging unlawful behaviour.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Denis McLean and Alan Samson.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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