Case Number: 2873

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: The Spinoff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of


On March 4, 2020 The Spinoff published an opinion piece by Dr Siouxsie WilesSome advice for Simon Bridges on being responsible in a health emergency. The lead in, not written by Dr Wiles, stated It is the National Party Leader’s job to oppose the government. But as a second case of Covid-19 in New Zealand is confirmed, he should tone down the anecdotal criticisms, and rein in MPs explicitly urging people to panic buy, writes Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor in molecular medicine and pathology.

The piece started

“I do understand that you lead the opposition.I get that it’s your job to hold the government to account, and that this is an election year.Of course you and your caucus are keen to score points against the government wherever you can.But the reality is, you don’t have to oppose everything it does. Sometimes, such as in the case of a public health emergency, it might be worth putting the kneejerk response on hold.”

The piece linked to two examples. In the first Simon Bridges was said to be “doubling down” on the government’s response saying he has heard of people being turned away from a hospital without being given the test for the virus; and criticising the government’s economic response.The second reported on Hamilton MP David Bennett saying on a local radio station that the government had “dropped the ball, big-time and put New Zealanders’ safety at risk”, and that people “should be out there panic-buying”.

Jason Collins complained he had asked Dr Wiles if she had gone to Mr Bridges for comment, to learn whether he had heard the interview, and if she had spoken to Mr Bennett. She did not reply.

He considered that even in an opinion piece Mr Bridges should have been allowed a right of reply and Dr Wiles should have established the National Party position on panic buying.

Mr Collins also notes the lead in states “MPs” when the piece refers to only one MP.

The Media Council Principle states that “Although requirements for a foundation of fact pertain, with comment and opinion balance is not essential.” This was clearly an opinion piece – a point noted by editor Toby Manhire in an initial response to the complainant and acknowledged by Mr Collins, who said “an opinion piece is one thing; fake news is another.”

The reference to MPs plural was inaccurate, but this inaccuracy is not material. Other statements are clearly hyper-linked to previous stories. Further, we note that in an editorial published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on March 13 over 50 of the country’s leading infectious disease and public health scientists and professionals said“… we urge politicians resist the temptation to scaremonger in an attempt to score points in the media. Instead, they should use their moments in the spotlight to amplify messages of our health system’s preparedness and how New Zealanders can individually make a difference at this critical time.” Dr Wiles is not alone in holding the expressed views.

Mr Collins is mistaken in seeking to apply news reporting standards to what is acknowledged to be an opinion piece. There is no requirement for an opinion writer to seek comment from other parties to balance the opinions being expressed.

Finding: Insufficient Grounds to Proceed.

There are insufficient grounds to establish a breach of any Principle and this complaint will not proceed.


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