GARY HOWAT AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2775

Council Meeting: APRIL 2019

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists

Overview

1. On March 21, 2019 Stuff published a column, clearly marked as “opinion”, by Pattrick Smellie headedFacebook’s intolerable insult to New Zealand after Mosque shootings.The column largely focused on tech platforms’ role in disseminating material about the Christchurch Mosque attacks.In part it noted that “people travelling to the Womad festival in New Plymouth were confronted by a bridge in the city festooned not only with anti-1080 signs, but also with placards carrying web addresses for the alt-right QAnon movement.”

The complaint was upheld by a majority of Media Council members 6:5.

The Complaint

2. Gary Howat objects to a specific paragraph within the opinion piece “That the anti-1080 movement – with its deep connections to the gun lobby, its disregard for reason or truth, and radically anti-establishment leadership – is declaring a link to QAnon at all should be an early flag for security services seeking to prevent another Christchurch-style massacre.

3. Mr Howat makes no specific reference to which principles of the Media Council have been breached but submits that the column is “inaccurate journalism” and promotes “hate speech”.

4. He says the column’s inaccuracy relates to:

a) linking the 1080 movement to the gun lobby - an unsubstantiated statement with no proof offered in the column.

b) He says “no proof is offered nor can there be any, that shows a disregard for the truth or reason. In fact the United Nations class 1080 as a very dangerous substance”.

c) Mr Smellie suggests links between 1080 and QAnon because he saw posters for both in New Plymouth on a bridge near a festival. “This (link) is incorrect”, says Mr Howat.

The Response

5. Stuff’s initial response from Roeland van den Burgh (chief news director – business) noted that whilst the comments may be provocative and upsetting to some, it was not a reason to not publish them.

6. Mr van den Burgh also noted that in the wake of March 15, Stuff were receiving a high volume of complaints which reflected the strong emotions and concerns “flowing in the community”.

Complainant’s Response

7. Mr Howat responded the Stuff’s reply was not satisfactory to him and requested the Media Council consider the complaint.

Stuff’s Second Response

8. Geoff Collett (editor in chief, verticals) responded in detail, concluding that Stuff rejected the allegation that the column breached “established principles guiding opinion articles”.

9. His response noted that the Accuracy, Fairness and Balance principle covered the provision of balance over a series of stories on long running issues, and this was applicable to Smellie’s 1080 observation.

10. The response also noted: “In the column Smellie clearly explained the connecting thread which had led him to referencing the anti-1080 movement as deserving “an early flag for security services seeking to prevent another Christchurch-style massacre.”

11. “Specifically this was a collection of placards displayed prominently in New Plymouth … which, Smellie explained, included references both to anti-1080 messages and the QAnon movement, regarded as a refuge for extremist conspiracy theorists.”

12. Mr Collett said Stuff accepted a central part of Mr Smellie’s contention, “that he personally witnessed the placards on the New Plymouth bridge which prompted him to draw the connection between the anti-1080 movement and QAnon. He had no doubt that the placards’ themes and messages were intertwined. We have questioned him further on this since the column was published and he was clear in his recollections.”

The Decision


The Media Council considered the complaint under the following Principle.

Principle 4 - Comment and Fact

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 an opinion is based should be accurate.

Principle 5 - Columns, blogs, opinion and Letters was not considered - the column is clearly identified as 'opinion" and the matter of accuracy is covered within Principle 4.

13) The majority of the Media Council upholds the complaint in regards to Principle 4, based on this paragraph

"That the anti-1080 movement – with its deep connections to the gun lobby, its disregard for reason or truth, and radically anti-establishment leadership – is declaring a link to QAnon at all should be an early flag for security services seeking to prevent another Christchurch-style massacre.”

14. The majority notes that there is nothing within the Stuff response or overall complaint to establish unequivocally that there were posters linking QAnon and the anti-1080 movement.

That the anti-1080 movement – with its deep connections to the gun lobby, its disregard for reason or truth, and radically anti-establishment leadership – is declaring a link to QAnon at all should be an early flag for security services seeking to prevent another Christchurch-style massacre.”

Smellie saw posters for each on a bridge enroute to Womad. There is no evidence that a single poster referenced both organisations, thereby fairly justifying Smellie’s statement that the anti-1080 movement is declaring a link.It is a long bow, to draw.

Following Smellie’s logic in this instance, any poster promoting an organisation – for eg, Greenpeace - on the same bridge as QAnon posters could therefore be linked to QAnon.

The onus was on Stuff to provide evidence linking the two organisations and there were no facts provided.

Dissent:

The dissenting members believe that while Smellie’s argument some signs on a bridge amount to the anti-1080 lobby as a whole declaring a link to QAnon is a very long bow to draw, it does not amount to a breach of the principle regarding opinion columns. The decision comes down to whether Smellie’s views were based on accurate material facts.

There’s no challenge to the fact the signs existed and the editor’s response says Smellie insisted the signs regarding 1080 and QAnon were “intertwined”. The Council has no evidence to contradict him (and neither does the complainant) and it is not our role to investigate. The issue is undoubtedly worthy of debate and provokes many strong opinions. Smellie’s views appear genuine, and while they clearly offend the complainant, it is not gratuitous for Smellie to describe parts of the anti-1080 lobby as he does. Stuff published a column with a counter view.

The column deals with the political views and strategies of a group that itself expresses itself vigorously. Smellie does not target individual members. The Council operates a high threshold for strong, sometimes extreme, opinions as part of a robust democracy and we do not think this column crosses that line.

Media Council members upholding the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten and Marie Shroff.

Media Council members dissenting from this decision were Jo Cribb, Jenny Farrell, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.