HELEN BLACK AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2950

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. A complaint that a story about threats against Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage from those opposed to a tahr cull was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced.

Background

2. Stuff published a story on July 30, 2020 under the headlineConservation Minister Eugenie Sage gets death threats over tahr cull. It was based mainly on information from the minister on threats received against herself, and that threats of violence against staff and boycotts of helicopter companies led operators to retreat from the Department of Conservation tahr control plan.

3. The final three paragraphs of the story briefly referred to previous threats and abuse from anti-1080 activists and that requirements to provide extra security would cost taxpayers $10.7 million over four years.

The Complaint

4. Helen Black complained that these final paragraphs implied that ant-1080 activists were violent and costly to society and maligned a group of people who disagreed with the minister and poison operations.

5. She also complained about reference to “vile” Facebook comment. This should be taken up with Facebook and not mentioned in a news report. It was unprofessional and a misrepresentation to stereotype and malign people who frequent Facebook.

6. She argued there was insufficient evidence to justify DoC’s extra expenditure for security. Where the department reported 54 threats and 96 cases of abuse in 2019, Police had provided information in response to Official Information Act requests stating that only three incidents had been reported to it by the department since January 2017.

7. She asked why Stuff had not given hunters the opportunity to respond to allegations of threats and said anti-1080 activists were given no chance to correct references to them.

8. The article lacked checks for accuracy, fairness and balance and allegations were put together in an inflammatory manner to caste a negative stereotype.

The Response

9. Stuff news director Joanne Butcher said the article was a factual news report about death threats against Eugenie Sage.

10. It was a report of potential criminal activity and was based on facts and figures officially recorded by the Government.

11. It did not present an opinion on tahr culling, use of 1080 or other DoC activities and did not unfairly represent anyone who legitimately expressed opposition to those activities.

12. In addition to reporting the threats against the minister it briefly summarised some previous arguments over pest control and other related stories. This was relevant, added context to the emergence of new threats and illustrated the heightened atmosphere of tension.

13. Information about the threats against those linked to the tahr cull was factual and confirmed by the minister’s office and police. Figures around the number of threats made against DoC came from information released by the department. The 2019 Budget, which set out an additional $10.7 million in security funding for DoC, specifically referenced increased targeting of DoC staff and property by anti-1080 campaigners.

14. Stuff was fair and balanced by including arguments against the tahr cull which was the primary subject of the story. The article reported some groups were angry with DoC’s plans and said they were not consulted thoroughly, while others believed DoC’s actions did not go far enough.

15. The story stated that some hunting and anti-1080 social media pages contained abuse, but it did not say that everyone who uses those pages or holds opinions on the use of 1080 posts such comments.

16. The story only briefly summarised the conflict over 1080. It was included as background information to the main subject of the story and it would not have been reasonable to offer a right of reply or repeat every side of this long-running argument which Stuff had previously reported widely and fairly.

17. The story referred to general camps of opinion rather than specific organised groups which could reasonably have been expected to have a right of reply.

18. Naming them could have wrongly implied they were responsible for threats against Sage. It would have also been irresponsible for Stuff to provide a platform for any group to advocate threats, violence or criminal damage.

The Decision

19. This complaint relates to what appears to be a straight forward news report relating to death threats against Eugenie Sage from those opposed to the tahr control.

20. It included as background information brief reference to previous threats by eco activists who were opposed to DoC’s use of 1080 poison, the provision of additional funding for security, and vile comment on Facebook groups from both the hunting community and anti-1080 campaigners.

21. The big difference between DoC’s figures on the number of threats and instances of abuse and the number of threats recorded by the Police is unexplained and the Media Council is not able to determine where the facts lie on this issue. However, Stuff was fairly entitled to report the DoC figures and the extra funding for security.

22. Ms Black’s belief that DoC seems to have created a culture of fear to justify extra money for security, is a matter of opinion. She is entitled to hold that opinion but journalists are bound to have a more solid foundation for their reporting.

23. This report was based on facts and information from the minister, DoC and previous reports on the controversies relating to its pest control work. In the relevant region, the issue of the proposed tahr cull is a long-running issue, with the varying views widely canvassed. Readers who have been following the issue will be well aware that there is a large group of locals and hunters who are opposed to the tahr cull, and who are not radicals and who would not resort to threats or violence.

24. Therefore it was not unfair or unbalanced to give full coverage to the threats to the Minister, without covering all the background. The views of those opposed to tahr culls had been previously reported. It would have been helpful and in the public interest if Stuff had given responsible leaders of the anti-cull group the opportunity to disavow anybody who threatened criminal behaviour, but we do not see this to have been essential given the narrow focus of the report (threats of violence against the Minister that had indeed been made.)

25. We also see merit in the point made that there were not specific anti-cull groups referred to, but rather two conflicting bodies of community opinion. To single any group or person out for comment could have been unfair.

26. Anti-1080 campaign activities were mentioned briefly to provide readers with relevant background of the threats to DoC arising out of another contentious environmental issue. Given the brevity of the reference to those activists there was no requirement for Stuff to reopen all the already well-canvassed, and vehemently opposed, views on the use of 1080, and protest action taken.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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