HELEN DENIZE AGAINST THE MARLBOROUGH EXPRESS

Case Number: 634

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Marlborough Express

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint that an article in the Marlborough Express had been defamatory in that it called into question the professional ability of Ms Helen Denize. The Press Council held, that while the article contained several inaccuracies, it had all the characteristics of a review, was published under the name of the author, Tom O’Connor, and was clearly an expression of his opinions. The Council noted that Ms Denize had not accepted the opportunity to explain her objections in a published letter to the editor.

Mr O’Connor’s article, published on 12 June, contained information and comment about a 13-minute video, prepared by Ms Denize, on behalf of a number of South Island District Councils and organisations especially concerned with the South Island High Country. It was shown on TV One, was sent out to all secondary schools, and accompanied publicity material provided to newspapers.

Under the heading “No Marlborough in South Island High Country Show” the article opened with the sentence “A television programme on the South Island high country, produced for Associate Minister of Lands Denis Marshall, has overlooked Marlborough and Molesworth Station.” It then said the programme covered spectacular South Island scenery and concentrated largely on the region’s untapped tourist potential. It referred again to the omission of Molesworth Station and to the lack of footage of game hunting and high country fishing. It said that hydropower generation was extolled and pastoral agriculture was given a brief glance. The best portrayal it said, was of the life style of the hardy high country people and it said Ms Denize excelled there with first class footage. It concluded with the summation “Very pretty, but unfortunately incomplete.”

These comments upset Ms Denize who, after talking with the editor, made a written complaint to him about what she saw as numerous inaccuracies. Notable among these was the assertion that the video had been produced for the Minister of Lands. This error was speedily corrected by the editor who also suggested Ms Denize outline her concerns in a published letter.

After further exchanges involving lawyers acting on her behalf, Ms Denize appealed to the Press Council on 22 August. She said the article appeared as a report, not a review. It was editorial opinion disguised as fact and had defamed her and her product. She again identified factual inaccuracies in the heading and lead paragraph of the article and dealt extensively with the points of criticism that it contained. Molesworth Station was not mentioned, but nor was any other. Marlborough was mentioned but there was no footage because the Marlborough Territorial Council did not contribute to the programme. Game hunting and fishing were omitted on instructions from the working party which oversaw the programme and gave her directions. Mr O’Connor should not
have inferred that she, as producer, was responsible for omissions attributable to the Video Working Party.

As a member of the Fish and Game Council, Mr O’Connor was writing from a biased perspective. His criticism about the relative weightings given hydro power and pastoral agriculture was factually incorrect; the farming sequence was the longest in the programme and the power sequence was the shortest.

Mr O’Connor’s final comment “Very pretty, but unfortunately incomplete” overlooked that the programme was only 13 minutes and 32 seconds long and was called “A Glimpse of the High Country,” factors which confined and defined it. There had been widespread praise for the programme and the Marlborough Express alone had been destructive.

In his response to the Council the editor rejected the charge of bias against Mr O’Connor, said that his article had twice noted the length of the programme and stressed that it contained both praise and criticism. It was appropriate in a Marlborough newspaper to comment on the failure to mention Molesworth and appropriate to refer to recreational uses such as hunting and fishing, given concern over public access for those purposes. Ms Denize, he said, had met her clients’ brief - but there were other points of view.

On 11 September, Ms Denize repeated to the Council some of her earlier criticisms, but stressed particularly that she was claiming the right to produce what the client asked for, to have that accurately reported and to preserve her excellent professional reputation. If the newspaper had properly acknowledged the authorities for which the programme was made, it would have been understood better why the programme was the way it was. Finally she seized on the editor’s contention that there were other points of view than the one she had followed. Why then had the article not been described as a review and so been given a context for its opinions ?

During discussion of the complaint, members of the Press Council noted that it is not obligatory to indicate whether or not an article is a review, particularly when it appears over a byline, Mr O’Connor’s article had all the features of a review of a television programme of the kind that appears regularly in papers everywhere and, typically of such reviews, dispensed praise and criticism and seized on points of excess or omission that the reviewer felt he had detected. It was regrettable that the article contained factual errors.

Members thought it natural enough that Ms Denize be concerned that the instructions by which she was governed be understood. But they considered that there must be a point at which a programme is judged on wider aspects than its fulfilment or otherwise, of its sponsors’ wishes.


The Council felt that had Ms Denize accepted the offer of a letter to the editor she could have explained effectively, among other things, that the film’s title was a clear
and immediate indication that a great many things would be only briefly covered and some not at all.

The complaint was not upheld