JIM TRAUE AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint over The Dominion Post’s handling of a contributed opinion piece and reminded newspapers that they must not put words into the mouths of expert commentators.
In the case before the Council, Mr Jim Traue, a former Chief Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library and a lecturer in librarianship at Victoria University, submitted an article expressing concern at planned changes to the university library.
The Dominion Post advised him that the article was too long and said it could either be trimmed by its editorial staff or he could do it himself. Preferring to retain control over the changes Mr Traue chose the latter.
Nevertheless, when the article appeared on July 8 additional changes had been made. The introduction had been altered from a question asking why many people were upset at the library plans to a statement that Mr Traue was outraged.
More significantly, in terms of the complaint, a reference to the university 'dumping 30,000 books' was added to the second paragraph, whereas Mr Traue's draft had referred in the first paragraph to plans to 'dispose' of the books.
In addition, the article was illustrated with a photograph of some old books, with a caption stating that they were 'among some of the thousands of surplus books the university library is going to give away or dump', when in fact those particular books were to be retained.
The day the article appeared Mr Traue sent a note to the paper by hand objecting to the insertion of the word 'dumping' and to the erroneous caption and asking for a correction.
The next day the paper replied suggesting - somewhat confusingly - that 'because of the delay between the article's publication and the arrival of the letter asking for a correction' Mr Traue should make his points in a letter for publication. Mr Traue duly wrote such a letter and it appeared on July 16.
There the matter rested until on July 30 The Dominion Post published an article from Professor Warwick Clegg, pro-vice chancellor at the university, defending the university's plans for the library. The final paragraph observed that a former academic like Mr Traue might have been expected to offer 'a more balanced viewpoint, informed by library practice worldwide.'
Mr Traue wrote to Professor Clegg challenging his comments.
In reply on 6 September Professor Clegg apologised for the delay in replying, advising he had been out of New Zealand. He listed 11 points in Mr Traue's article with which he took issue, among them being the reference to 'dumping 30,000 titles' and the incorrect caption. Professor Clegg said he had noted that both points had subsequently been corrected in Mr Traue's letter but 'regrettably the damage had by then been done, and it had been done over your name.'
Mr Traue then wrote to the editor of The Dominion Post noting that Professor Clegg obviously felt the publication of the letter was 'insufficient to repair the damage done to the university' by the two errors and sought a meeting to discuss what further action might be taken to remedy the situation.
The editor responded that the paper had corrected the situation by publishing the letter and assumed in the absence of further comment from Mr Traue for nearly two months that the matter had been resolved. Professor Clegg's article and letter had covered many other matters and the paper felt it was up to the two to resolve their differences directly.
Mr Traue then complained to the Press Council.
The Council has considerable sympathy with Mr Traue.
It is not acceptable for a newspaper to make significant changes to an opinion article without the approval of the author.
The Council does not agree with the contention of the editor that 'it was not a simple matter of correcting a factual mistake, but rather one of nuance and the difference between dispose and dump.' The ordinary reader would have taken a very different message from the article as a result of the change – a difference underlined by the wording of the paper’s own photo caption - and Mr Traue should have been allowed to retain the meaning he wished.
Nor does the Council agree with the editor that the photograph and caption were merely 'misleading'. They were wrong.
Mr Traue was entitled to expect the paper to publish corrections on both points.
In the circumstances, for the paper to merely ask Mr Traue to write a letter expressing his view was an abrogation of its obligation to correct errors fully and freely.
The editor is correct in pointing out that the argument between Mr Traue and Professor Clegg – which led to the matter being brought to the Council – was not the result of the errors made by the paper.
Professor Clegg's article made no mention of them. His subsequent letter to Mr Traue did refer to both but they were only two among a list of 11 concerns. It seems clear that Professor Clegg would have responded vigorously to Mr Traue's article even if the paper had not erred or if it had published a prompt correction.
Nevertheless, that does not alter the fact that the paper made two significant errors – most notably in putting unwanted words into the mouth of a highly qualified contributor – and then failed to adequately acknowledge its error.
The complaint is therefore upheld.
Ms Suzanne Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.