Environment Southland has complained about an article about the haemorrhagic disease Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) published in Invercargill This Week, a small magazine-cum-pamphlet produced by Hometown Publications and distributed free to Invercargill households.

The complaint is upheld.

The article, in the magazine’s June 16, 2005 issue, headlined Calicivirus Affects Everything begins with an assertion that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is planning “another drop” of the disease, suggesting a legal repeat of a 1997 illegal release. The article confirms the plan by quoting a named Environment Southland biosecurity officer. It then makes an assertion that the virus has the ability to mutate to affect other species, before using a local rabbit breeder to graphically describe how an infected rabbit dies.

Environment Southland complains that the article contravenes Press Council principles requiring accuracy, clear distinction between comment and fact, accurate and fair headlines, and prompt correction of errors. As well as insisting the named biosecurity officer was never spoken to by the reporter, it says:

 The headline’s claim of adverse effects on non-target species is not borne out in the article.
 The article’s announcement of a planned drop by MAF is wrong: MAF has nothing to do with the virus’s importation.
 The descriptions of Calicivirus-induced rabbit deaths exaggerate the pain felt.

Communications’ co-ordinator Nikki Waghorn also says Environment Southland is concerned about the fear likely to be generated among pet and livestock owners. It is currently preparing information to counter the article to be issued when an “importation” of the RCD virus is completed.

In response, Hometown Publications owner Ray Tinker says, when his reporter rang Ms Waghorn to “sort out the problem”, she was not given a fair hearing and was hung up on. If Environment Southland had accepted the chance to give its side and list the article’s inaccuracies, the problem would have been dealt with. The article had been “perhaps from an emotional point of view”, but was supported by background Internet research and an interview with a breeder who could be seen as “an expert in the field”.

Mr Tinker has enclosed his reporter’s notes, with names of interview subjects above their answers, but these are too sparse and clumsy to draw any conclusions of interviewing veracity.

But regardless of disagreement over whether the Environment Southland biosecurity officer was spoken to, the information conveyed in the article – that MAF is planning a drop of RCD – is simply wrong and should have been promptly corrected.

Though it would have been wise for the article to clearly attribute the assertion, the Internet-originating claim that studies show that the virus can mutate and affect other species is a scientific assertion beyond the scope of the Press Council to deliberate on. The headline, however, though intended as a summary of a breeder’s comments about the virus killing “everything in its way” is, at kindest reading, a careless one. Putting “everything” in quotation marks might have removed ambiguity. As things stand, readers are confronted with unsubstantiated assertion as fact.

It would have been similarly wise for descriptions of rabbits’ painful death to have been gleaned from a significant authority on the disease, but these words are clearly attributed and legitimately open to reader judgment of right or wrong.

In making its judgments, the Press Council acknowledges the nature of the publication: a small home-delivery giveaway, supported by minimal editorial, and unlikely to employ an experienced journalist. But shortcomings such as outlined, not to mention the naïve reliance on unsourced Internet material for fact, cannot be overlooked.

Ironically, the reporter may have touched on a significant story for the region, as confirmed by Ms Waghorn’s correspondence: that the RCD virus is being imported, not by MAF, but by Environment Southland. The reporter simply got her facts wrong. A mainstream newspaper, where such a story might more properly belong, could have had a field day.


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