GAVAN O'FARRELL AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2812

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Readers Comments
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1.The complaint is about the fairness of the decision of Stuff not to publish comments submitted by the complainant, Gavan O’Farrell, to an online discussion on an article of 8 May about the “Christchurch Call”.

2. The Media Council has consistently taken the position that online comments are analogous to letters to the editor and are therefore subject to Principle 5, the relevant part of which states: “Letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance, and public interest.”

The Council has also taken the position that the terms and conditions for publication of online comments are a matter between the publication and its readers.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

3. The Stuff article of 8 May was opened for reader comments, and the online discussion generated many contributions. The complainant wished to add a contribution from his point of view, and was prevented from doing so by Stuff’s closure of comments on the article. Although he objected to Stuff about this, his comments were not published. He views the refusal to publish as unfair and unbalanced in presenting the discussion online. The complainant is mainly concerned that the actions of Stuff fail to take account of the expressly stated requirement of principle 5, that editors are to be guided by “fairness, balance, and the public interest”, in selecting for publication material submitted by readers by way of letters or blogs. The complainant has also supplied a large amount of supporting material relating to previous occasions on which he believes Stuff has dealt unfairly with him by failing to publish his contributions, which in most cases give the Christian point of view.

4. Mr O’Farrell raises a number of other matters including lack of response from Stuff; and requests a change to Principle 5 to remove the fairness and balance requirement, if this is not to be complied with, to reduce confusion and avoid raising false expectations in complainants.

The Response

5. Stuff’s Deputy Editor Janine Fenwick provided some useful context for consideration of this complaint. Stuff makes rolling decisions about which articles to open for reader comments. Approximately 3000-4000 comments are received daily on the chosen articles. Stuff staff undertake the considerable task of moderating each comment for compliance with Stuff’s Terms and Conditions (T&Cs), before publication; about one third are rejected. After a period of time it is common for Stuff to turn a comment stream to read only (i.e. to close it), to allow for comments to be opened on a new story. (See Stuff website for their T&Cs).It is not realistic for Stuff to respond to every complaint about rejected comments.

6. In the case of this story, which Stuff says was originally published about 9pm on 7 May 2019, 200 comments were generated. The news director made the call to close the article (and three other unrelated articles) for comments at 4:45pm the next day. At this point in the process it is standard practice for the moderator to “bulk reject” any pending comments, to clear the stream. At the time there were 12 comments pending and unpublished on the “Christchurch Call” story, including Mr O’Farrell’s. The 108 comments originally published included a range of perspectives. (Only 99 comments on this article now appear on the Stuff website.) The deputy editor comments that this is not a case of Mr O’Farrell’s views being rejected – simply that the comments stream was closed.

8. On fairness and balance, Janine Fenwick says that the issue needs to be considered in the context of the full story and comments posted, and of Mr O’Farrell’s communications with Stuff. Since March 2018 Stuff has received about 90 emails from Mr O’Farrell regarding his individual comments on stories. As of June 2019 Mr O’Farrell has submitted 1369 comments to Stuff on various stories, of which 305 were rejected due to breaches of the Terms and Conditions. Stuff has also published 6 opinion pieces from Mr O’Farrell. In spite of the frequency of Mr O’Farrell’s correspondence, Stuff says it has responded to Mr O’Farrell’s individual complaints many times.

9. In the context of Stuff’s standard policies and practices on online comments, individual responses to Mr O’Farrell from Stuff, and the publication of his opinion pieces, Stuff believes that it has complied with Media Council principles.

The Decision

10. Mr O’Farrell’s complaint, and its supporting material, is lengthy, comprehensive and closely argued. He has carefully considered, against the Media Council Principles, the issues he raises. The Council is conscious that as a Christian he may well find offensive the many anti-Christian comments he quotes, from this case and other online contexts. Milder comments include referring to the Bible as “the sky fairies sent us a book”; to Christianity as “outdated superstition”; and to “the virus known as religion”.

11. The Media Council has long taken the view, in defending freedom of expression, that there is no right not to be offended. Online comments are renowned for being robust and often unkind or offensive. The “Christchurch Call” project itself demonstrates that governments and regulators are still struggling to deal with these matters adequately, in a way which reins in violent extremism and protects privacy, as well as allowing for freedom of expression.

12. The Council will monitor this debate for its potential future impacts, but must adhere to its Principles as they stand in considering current individual complaints. The Council has long accepted that reader comments expressed in a letter to the editor, and now also online are, with the exception of extreme breaches of the Principles, at the discretion of the editor. Stuff has developed Terms and Conditions for online comments and devotes considerable time and resources to moderation, to avoid more extreme and offensive or otherwise inappropriate content being published. But the comments are what they are; Stuff does not seek to manipulate reader comments to meet a notional balance, which may be judged very differently according to the views of observers.

13. In this case, Mr O’Farrell’s comments were not published because the comments stream was closed. A range of largely political views was expressed in the published comments. Religion was not the focus of the online discussion. Stuff’s T&Cs, moderation process and other practices in handling online comments allow for considerations of fairness, balance and public interest to be applied, and the Council considers there was no breach of its principles in this case.

14. Mr O’Farrell’s complaint about lack of fairness and balance is therefore not upheld.

15.. Mr O’Farrell has also complained about the failure to answer his communications to Stuff and, in particular, the fact he did not receive an individual reply about non-publication of his “pending” comments.

16. It is clear that he has communicated very often with Stuff and on many occasions received a personal response. The frequency of his communications may have contributed to only some of his correspondence being answered individually. Mr O’Farrell also provides many past examples of both failure to post his comments, as well as examples of his comments being posted after he has complained. Stuff has a procedure for dealing with complaints about online comments and it seems on many occasions comments are taken down (or posted) as a result. Given the numbers involved, Stuff not unreasonably, has a practice that not all complaints about online comments can receive an individual reply. The fact that an individual acknowledgment is received does not necessarily mean that further correspondence will be entered into. It does not appear that this complainant has been treated in an unfair way on this occasion.

17. Mr O’Farrell’s complaint on lack of response is therefore not upheld.

18. In relation to his complaint, Mr O’Farrell has suggested to the Media Council that if complaints on grounds of fairness and balance in relation to online comments are not to be upheld, the reference in Principle 5 to editors being guided by “fairness, balance and public interest” in dealing with letters and blogs, should be removed from the Principle. The Council notes that an ordinary reading of Principle 5 is that editors should take fairness and balance into account in making decisions about which readers’ comments to publish.

19. The Stuff online T&Cs focus largely on editorial discretion not to publish offensive, obscene, inaccurate, defamatory or commercial promotion comments. The Council notes that it would be difficult in practice and potentially distorting of the tenor of readers’ views, for editors to be required to make detailed assessments for balance of multiple comment streams. Freedom for readers to express their views is important, within reasonable bounds, and it would be inconsistent with Media Council principles for editors to edit readers’ contributions to select those from only one side of a debate or to manipulate balance to satisfy particular complainants. Stuff clearly devotes effort to moderating online comments. In the Council’s view there is no present need to change Principle 5.

20. We suggest that Stuff could, however, consider a small clarification to their process for dealing with the closing of online comment streams. This would be to add notification, to those people who have submitted and received acknowledgment of their comments during the window shortly before closure, that their pending comments will not be published because the comments stream has recently been closed.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.