Case Number: 963

Council Meeting: MARCH 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Taste Lack of

Mr J R Braithwaite complained about an opinion piece published in Hawke’s Bay Today on 11 December 2003 under the by-line of Anendra Singh. Mr Braithwaite wrote that he had “read with contempt” a description of the former All Black coach John Mitchell in terms which he described as “highly personal”, “unbalanced” and “abusive” and an “excellent example of why people in the public eye desire as little contact with the press as possible”.

The complaint was not upheld.

The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today was candid enough to agree that the article in question was in poor taste and did not meet required standards. He had spoken to the author accordingly. He went on to say however that a columnist is under no obligation to be balanced and that the whole point of such columns is often to express an opinion as forcibly as possible. Mr Singh’s article “was but one of a chorus nationwide making uncharitable comments about Mr Mitchell”. It was unfortunate that in this case the criticism was “not redeemed by a higher standard of wit.”

The Press Council agrees. The Council has consistently upheld the right of writers of opinion pieces to express their views in strong, even distasteful terms. In an essay on ‘Freedom of Speech’ in the Council’s 2002 Annual Report a writer in the Times of London, commenting on opinion pieces, was cited as making the point: “It has to be said at regular intervals that press freedom is empty if it means freedom to be caring, compassionate, thoughtful, sensitive and sensible. True freedom of the press can only mean the freedom to be vulgar, stupid, ignorant, offensive and just plain wrong …”. The Council stresses that the ‘right to be wrong’ refers only to opinions not to facts.

This said, writers of opinion pieces should be wary of making elaborate analogies and stretching attempts at humour beyond breaking point. The article in question was not funny and at times the thread of the argument disappeared entirely in the effort to needed to sustain a disagreeable comparison of Mr Mitchell with the Christmas turkey.

The Council does not uphold Mr Braithwaite’s complaint.