A complaint alleging unfair editing of a letter to the New Zealand Herald has been partly upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Helen Yensen and Tim McCreanor wrote to the Herald on 29 October about the possibilities, as they saw them, raised by the One Tree Hill chainsaw incident.
The letter was published on 1 November with editing changes the authors found unacceptable.

In their letter to the Council the complainants acknowledged the editor's right to edit or abridge letters, but not to distort their meaning which, is what they claimed happened in this case.

The first part of the complaint related to the decision to change Maori to Maoris to conform with the newspaper's style. They did not challenge this, an element of the Herald's general editorial policy, but argued that letters to the editor expressed the views of the writers and were, in a way, direct quotes.

Fair editing, they said, corrected grammar and spelling, improved clarity and sometimes resulted in a refusal to print for a number of reasons. However, they said, the editing in this instance was not fair, as for them and many others, adding the English plural "s" to Maori words in general use was a matter of principle, an acknowledgement of the official status of the Maori language and their respect for it.

The Herald's deputy editor, Mr Don Milne, in a reply on 8 November, confirmed that the change had been made to conform with the Herald style.

Though the writers felt strongly the rules governing the letters column should be flexible enough to allow for exceptions to the form prescribed by the paper's general style, the Council believes the Herald was justified in making the change. The writers were clearly familiar with the Herald's stance on this particular point of style and must have anticipated the change would be made.

The second part of their complaint mainly related to changing part of a sentence from "guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and affirmed in the Treaty of Waitangi" to "claimed in a declaration of independence."

This, they said, was editing which distorted a significant historic fact. They knew of no historian or reputable New Zealand writer who did not use capital letters for the 1835 Declaration of Independence. The change from "guaranteed" to "claimed" was also a distortion.

Mr Milne in his reply, said one of the purposes of editing letters to the editor was to correct misrepresentation. Their letter, if unedited, would have given readers the quite inaccurate perception that the 1835 declaration by the northern Maori chiefs had the legality and formality of the United States Declaration of Independence. He said the New Zealand declaration had been little more than a diplomatic charade.

Both the Herald and the complainants quoted authorities for their respective positions.

There is clearly a division of opinion on the status of the New Zealand declaration. What the Herald saw as eliminating misrepresentation , created misrepresentation in the eyes of the complainants. A reference to the writers by Mr Milne in his 8 November letter as "latter-day revisionists" can have done little to persuade them of the reasonableness of the Herald's position.

The Press Council believes this was a case where the Herald should have either declined to publish the letter, or to have contacted the writers to outline the proposed amendments and the reasons for them.

As published over their names the letter, in respect to the declaration, was a distortion of the meaning - whether historically accurate or not - they wished to convey. Simply stated what was published, was not their opinion. In the circumstances the Press Council upholds this part of the complaint.

Mr Peter Scherer, Editor of the New Zealand Herald, is a member of the Press Council but was not present at the meeting when the complaint was considered.


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