GEMMA CLAIRE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENERGemma Claire complained to the Press Council about a cover story comprising two articles respectively titled “Murder, they said” and “Malice aforethought” published in the New Zealand Listener (“the Listener”) in issue 3530. Her complaint is not upheld.
The articles complained about canvass particular views about the conviction of Scott Watson for the murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope on New Year’s Eve of 1998. These articles are noted in the stand-first as representing the views of “two men who know the case inside out [and who] have no doubt at all that the right man is behind bars”.
Ms Claire submitted a letter to the editor on 5 January 2008 objecting to various aspects of the articles. Her letter was not published. She wrote again to the editor on 14 January 2008 detailing why, in her opinion, it was important for her letter to be published. Following that correspondence, the editor published an abridged form of her letter in edition 3533 of the Listener. By an email, Ms Claire advised the Listener that she considered the abridgement had, by omission, misrepresented her views.
The editor responded to her email explaining the reason for the abridgement. Ms Claire remained dissatisfied and complained to the Council.
Ms Claire’s complaint can be summarised under these heads:-
• the editor’s decision to publish an abridged version of her letter to the editor resulted in a misrepresentation of her views;
• the publications complained of contravened Principle 8 in that they placed gratuitous emphasis on a “minority group”;
• the publications contained inappropriately colloquial, misleading and emotive phraseology for a reputable magazine such as the Listener;
• the author of the articles had subsequently paraphrased parts of the letters of complaint submitted by Ms Claire for use in an unrelated column in a later edition of the Listener; and
• the author of the article had (allegedly) subsequently expressed contrary views to some of those expressed in the articles and that this called into question her professionalism.
The Magazine’s Response
The magazine responded that an editor has the right to abridge letters without explanation;
The editor rejected the claim that the articles breached Principle 8. She maintained that the descriptions of Scott Watson as a “high-school drop out” living “a life apparently based around dope, drink and the dole” were not factually incorrect. The editor did not accept that there could be any implication drawn that someone who left school early will become criminally active. Similarly, she rejected any possibility that the implication could be drawn that someone on a government benefit will become a criminal.
The editor defended the use of the colloquial terms such as the “dole” and “nicked” on the basis that these terms had come from interviews with Scott Watson’s parents at the time of his convictions. She also defended the description of the magazine of Watson living a “life of crime” maintaining that a person with 48 convictions over his adult life can properly fall within such a description.
In relation to the complaint of Ms Claire as to description of the victims of the murders as being “promising and attractive young people”, the editor claimed that the evidence given at the trial was such as to make this statement valid.
In relation to the complaint that a subsequent column by the same journalist allegedly plagiarised ideas from Ms Claire’s letters of complaint, the editor explained that the journalist would not have seen these letters of complaint at the date at which her subsequent column was written.
Ms Claire quite properly acknowledges that an editor reserves the right to abridge letters without explanation. In this case, Ms Claire’s letter was edited down to one salient point which had not been covered by other correspondents. While this did result in the omission of other points which Ms Claire wished to make, the Council is satisfied that such an editing decision is the sole preserve of the editor. In relation to the point made in the abridged letter, the Council is satisfied that Ms Claire’s view was accurately expressed.
Principle 8 provides that “[p]ublications should not place gratuitous emphasis on gender religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour, or physical or mental disability. Nevertheless, where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in those areas.”
Ms Claire’s complaint is premised on a claim that being an early high school leaver can entitle Mr Watson to fall within the description of being a member of a minority group. Further, Ms Claire says that the description of Mr Watson as a “high-school dropout” is “using emotionally loaded terminology to reinforce negative perceptions of certain groups”.
The Council is satisfied that readers of the Listener magazine will not group all early high school leavers within a descriptive categorisation which was made specific to Mr Watson. Further the Council considers it stretches the term “minority group” to embrace all early high school leavers.
In relation to Mr Watson being a person who receives an unemployment benefit, the same conclusions apply. The Council also does not find that there has been any implication/s in the articles that being an early high school leaver or the recipient of a benefit predisposes a person to become criminally active.
The Council does not find the language complained about to be contextually inappropriate. Where comments derived from other publications are re-used, then it might be best practice to make this more evident, but this must ultimately be a matter for the exercise of an editor’s discretion. In a case such as Scott Watson’s, there has been a huge amount of earlier media coverage. It seems unlikely that there would be many readers who had not already encountered the use of common colloquialisms from that earlier coverage.
The Council agrees with the editor of the Listener regarding the descriptions used of the victims. While these may stand in stark contradiction to the description of Mr Watson, the descriptions are consistent with the evidence adduced at the trial.
On the paraphrasing head of complaint, the Council does not find there to be sufficient similarity in the phrase complained about to accept any alleged paraphrasing particularly where an editor has explained that there had not been any opportunity for the journalist to have seen that prior material.
On the final head of complaint, the Council notes that the second publication was in an opinion column by the journalist who had done the initial cover story. The opinion column was not in any way about any aspect of the Scott Watson case. The former cover story was clearly stated to reflect the views of two men who had in depth knowledge of the case against Mr Watson. The column is an opinion piece by the columnist on entirely separate matters. There can be no requirement in good journalistic practice to suggest that two views expressed on peripheral matters should coincide.
For the reasons set out above, the Council does not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Aroha Beck took no part in the consideration of this complaint