GARY MC GIVNEY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2944

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Headlines and Captions
Politicians

Overview

This complaint, about a headline published on the New Zealand Herald website, was considered under the Media Council’s fast track procedure for handling urgent complaints. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

Gary McGivney complained about a headline published on the New Zealand Herald website on September 24, 2020.

The headline, under a “Vote 2020” banner, read ‘We gave our blood and sweat for palm oil,’: Labour abuses linked to top world brands.

This appeared to be deliberate manipulation of a headline in the New Zealand Herald to link the Labour Party with palm oil production abuses, Mr McGivney said.

To his relief, and then anger, the article did not mean that. It was about immigrant labour abuses on palm oil plantations and had nothing to do with the Labour Party or New Zealand.

He also questioned why the Herald needed so much punctuation – a comma, quote and colon before “Labour”.He suggested that this was perhaps to justify capitalizing the “L”.

When the story first ran in the Associated Press it was headlinedPalm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands, banks.

Mr McGivney said the Herald deliberately changed it to a headline that implied the New Zealand Labour Party was linked to palm oil abuses. This was an outright lie. He also faulted theHerald for placing it in the voting information section of the page.

He said this was wilful manipulation and false reporting for strictly political ends. First they created a damaging headline that did not relate to the article and then placed it in a prominent position in the “Vote 2020” information block. He imagined the only purpose for this was to damage Labour’s image. This was insidious and dangerous to a functioning democracy.

The Response

New Zealand Herald deputy head of news, Hamish Fletcher, said Mr McGivney was looking for a conspiracy where there wasn’t one.

The use of Labour with a capital “L” was not a deliberate attempt to mislead readers into thinking the Labour Party was linked to abuses on palm oil plantations.The Labour Party did not have a monopoly on the world labour just as the National Party had no exclusive rights to the word national.

It was widely known that New Zealand did not produce palm oil, so it should be obvious to a reader that the Labour Government had no link to its production

The use of quotations at the start of a headline was a common style at theHerald and other news websites. This typically involved selecting a good quote from the story and forming a headline with it. In this case“We gave our sweat and blood for palm oil” was added to the start of the original Associated Press headline “Palm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands.The words “Palm oil” were edited out after the quotation to avoid repetition.

The “L” was capitalised on “Labour” because it followed a quote and the quote was used to make the headline more interesting. TheHerald used this sort of construction daily on stories across its site.

The headline complied with Media Council principles relating to headlines. It was a fair and accurate summation of the Associated Press story.

The Media Council had previously stated that headlines must be read in conjunction with the story that followed. No-one could read this story and think the word “Labour” referred to the Labour Party rather than labour abuses.

The story was labelled “business” not “New Zealand”, indicating further that the word “Labour” related to working conditions and companies dealing with palm oil.

As for the “Vote 2020” banner, this had been located on the same spot for several days and was a marketing tool to allow theHerald to display all its election stories in one place if readers clicked on it. It had no relation to the story below it or next to it on the homepage and numerous different types of stories had appeared in the same position.

The Decision

Fast Track

The Media Council has fast-tracked its usual complaints process in this case because of the potential political issue raised and the proximity of the general election. This means that it has been considered by the full Council earlier than it would under the usual procedure.

Discussion

We accept at the outset that the headline was ambiguous and readers might have been confused. Being published at election time under what looks like an election related heading, along with two other politically related headlines, there was an implication that the Labour Party was somehow involved in dubious practices.

In doing this, the headline writer might have considered that capitalising the “L” might be problematic. Substituting the phrase “Worker abuse” for “Labour abuse” would have left no room for ambiguity. The wording of the headline and its placement with other political stories under the “Vote 2020” banner, providing a basis for a political connection, was careless

However, when the headline is considered, it does not have a sinister implication.

The word “labour” means work, or a workforce, and without the headline being under a political heading, it could not be naturally read as implicating the New Zealand Labour party. Although not free from ambiguity the natural meaning is abuses of labour, not abuses by the Labour party.

The format used in this headline – a quote followed by a contextual elaboration – can be seen as a reasonable grammatical usage. Such a usage is common, and there was no evidence that it was written like this to disadvantage the Labour Party.

Indeed, the Media Council has found no evidence to support the contention that this was a deliberate political manipulation.

The Council looks at headlines in conjunction with the stories that follow. This headline did reflect the story. Anybody who clicked on it, on reading it would immediately realise it was about abuses of labour and that it was not abuses by the Labour Party. There was no breach of the headline principle, which requires headlines to accurately reflect the story or part of the story.

Decision

The placement of this headline, ambiguously worded as it was, under a political banner, was careless. This could have led to some momentary misunderstanding by a reader, thinking that the Labour party was being linked to bad behaviour in connection with palm oil. However as we have set out, a moment’s reflection on the meaning of the headline “as is”, and even more so a click to the story, would have revealed the true position that this was about labour abuses. This coupled with the short period of its display, (about two hours), leads the Council to not uphold the complaint.

The complaint is not upheld.

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