HUGO JUDD AND A.SUTTON AGAINST NEW TRUTH

Case Number: 565

Council Meeting: MARCH 1995

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Truth

CASE NO: 565, 566

The New Zealand Press Council has upheld two complaints against New Truth following the publication of a front-page story and billboard headlined "Governor General's Son in Sex Scandal." The offending article was published on 18 November 1994.

The complaints came from the official secretary at Government House, Hugo Judd, on behalf of the Governor General Dame Catherine Tizard and from an Auckland citizen Mr A.W.Sutton.

Mr Judd, in writing to the editor seeking an apology to be prominently displayed in the paper, said that even the most inexperienced sub-editor would know the headline would be taken as a reference to Dame Catherine and her son. He added that it was hard to imagine this was not intentional: a story concerning the family of a former governor-general who died in 1977 and whose name is unknown to the majority of New Zealanders could not possibly interest many readers. The headline amounted to a gratuituous insult to the Governor-General, Judd said.

In his letter of complaint Mr Sutton drew attention to the fact that the billboard also carried what he saw as a deliberately false statement.

The editor of New Truth, Hedley Mortlock, wrote to the secretary at Government House asking Mr Judd to pass on his "sincere apologies" for any offence the headline caused Dame Catherine and her son. Subsequently, when it was indicated to him that both Government House and Mr Sutton were dissatisfied with his response, Mr Mortlock insisted that it should be recognised that the headline in New Truth is different from those in a daily or Sunday newspaper. He claims the words are a promotional teaser/pointer as used on front covers of weekly magazines. Such a teaser and or billboard must instantly grab a reader's attention to what the magazine is really offering inside. While the words must be accurate it's also fair and reasonable that they sometimes convey a double meaning and in some cases be an attempt at humour. The teasers and billboards are seen as a marketing and promotions tool.

Mr Mortlock said the fact that Dame Catherine found the teaser/billboard offensive "is not in dispute" and he had apologised to her, although he concedes he did not know Dame Catherine had a son. He suggested it would have been unfair to the families of Holyoake, Blundell, Beattie, Porritt and Reeves had the headline contained the word "former" in front of "Governor-General's son."

But he regarded a public apology as inappropriate since anyone who purchased the issue in question would have known that the family mentioned was Cobham not Tizard. The complainants, perhaps not surprisingly, found that the explanation offered by the editor was not satisfactory. It could not be claimed that the wording was accurate, said Mr Judd, who added that Dame Catherine was particularly surprised by Mr Mortlock's admission that a reference to a "former" governor-general could have caused offence to those families. He must then have recognised that the wording he chose would cause offence to Dame Catherine's family, as it did.

Mr Sutton also finds the editor's explanation confusing and contradictory. He points out that since the editor apologised to Dame Catherine, his excuses are "tendentious." Mr Sutton believes the newspaper exhibits a mischievous policy in as he says "seducing" the public into buying the paper.

There can be do doubt that the editor of the newspaper intended the headline to convey a double meaning. In so doing he clearly over-stepped the first principle of journalism that it must be accurate, and in apologising in his letter to the governor-general he conceded the paper had given offence. Yet surprisingly he was not prepared to mitigate the offence by making his expression of regret public in his newspaper.

The Council has urged newspapers in the past when they have given offence to act as speedily as possible to offer what remedies they might have in their power. The Council deplores what can only be described as an example of "deceptive" journalism which is outside the canons of good newspaper practice.

It does not regard the effort at "damage control" by the editor -- offering a private apology but not a public apology in the columns of his newspaper -- as coming up to the standard expected in New Zealand newspapers, even a tabloid that perhaps sees itself following in the footsteps of its London counterparts. The Council upholds the complaint and expresses its distaste for what it regards as deceptive journalism.

Furthermore the claim by the editor in his responses to the two complainants that he was unable to comment on the situation once a formal complaint had been made to the Press Council was nonsense.Had he corresponded with them earlier and acted on their complaints, the Press Council might not need to have been brought in to adjudicate.