EME KILKENNY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDEme Kilkenny complained to the Press Council, alleging “pro-right, anti left political bias” on the part of the New Zealand Herald, especially during the pre election period in 2008. She submitted two reports from the October 15 edition of the newspaper as examples and contended that they breached the provisions in the Statement of Principles which refer to accuracy, fairness and lack of balance.
Her complaint is not upheld.
Initially Ms Kilkenny had complained to the editor via e-mail regarding “ongoing political bias” (against the Labour Party) in the Herald.
The editor responded by pointing out that complaints had also been received alleging anti- National bias in the newspaper. He pointed out that thus any bias seemed to be “in the eye of the beholder”.
He stressed that, over time and across different editions of the paper, no discernible bias against any one party could be seen and he invited the complainant to back up her general criticism with specific examples so he could respond in more detail.
The complainant replied by suggesting that the October 15 issue was “highly unbalanced in negative spin against Labour and blanket positive spin pro National”. She cited various headlines, words with positive overtones being linked to John Key but words with negative associations being linked to Helen Clark, subheadings and a cartoon.
The editor referred the complainant to the previous issue (October 14). He listed various articles and headlines which were critical and negative about National and John Key and supportive and positive about Labour and Helen Clark. He suggested that a similar analysis of the October 13 issue revealed a similar breakdown. Thus, he stressed, over time, the newspaper’s coverage of the political campaigns might reveal a “rigorous balance”.
Dissatisfied, Ms Kilkenny took her complaint to the Press Council, specifically citing two reports from the October 15 edition.
The first report is a page 3 account of the first leaders’ debate of the 2008 election campaign. It is headlined “Taxing time at the leaders’ debate”. The complainant simply suggests it is “heavily biased” against the Prime Minister.
The second article appears on page 5. It is a piece by a long-standing Herald columnist about National being excluded from any considerations leading up to the issuing of a Government guarantee on New Zealander depositors’ savings. It is headlined “Clark arrogant to keep Key in dark” and runs below a subheading, “PM’s behaviour puts politics before welfare of the country”. Again the complainant submits that this is biased and an “emotive depiction positioned against Helen Clark”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor replied to the formal complaint over the first report by pointing out that it was a “colour piece” of observations and comment on the performance of the two leaders in the debate. He noted that there had been widespread comment on the strength of Key’s performance in the first debate.
He replied to the criticism of the second report by cheerfully acknowledging that it was indeed critical of Helen Clark and by attaching a second piece by the same columnist, one that was “demonstrably critical” of John Key.
In summary, his newspaper’s coverage could not be judged over one issue but by the overall “breadth of our coverage over time”.
Discussion and Conclusion
There is little to justify the claim that the first piece is “heavily biased”.
Certainly the general tenor of the text is that Key was the better performer on the night. For example, Key is “determined” whereas Clark is “in full roar”, until her voice becomes “a drone” and, though Key “persists”, she eventually “booms over him”. At times, too, Helen Clark’s comments are described as “fanciful” and also “grandiose”.
However, this is not a news report with its attendant need for objectivity and careful balance, this is obviously a personal account of how the journalist saw their respective performances and it is clearly from her point of view. The Council also notes that some other political commentators were also of the view that Key performed better than expected, the Prime Minister less so.
There is also nothing in the headlines, or in the accompanying photograph, to suggest biased treatment.
As far as the second piece is concerned, the editor’s rebuttal of ongoing bias by supplying another column by the same writer, but this time sharply critical of John Key, is telling.
More importantly, the complainant accuses the writer of bias and an “emotive depiction . . .against Helen Clark” but this is an opinion column and it is clearly labelled as such. The Press Council has been consistent its approach – where it is obviously opinion, the writer has considerable freedom to express that opinion, even in forceful language.
For the above reasons, the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.