JOHN BATES AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMESJohn Bates complained about an article published in the Sunday Star-Times on April 24, claiming that the Press Council’s Principles relating to Fairness, Accuracy and Balance, Comment and Fact, and Headlines and Captions had all been breached. His complaint is upheld by a majority. Two Council members dissented from this decision.
The article outlined the contents of a book, “Badlands NZ; A Land Fit for Criminals”, that had just been published.
The writer, David Fraser, was sharply critical of New Zealand governments for producing offender-friendly legislation and regulation, while showing scant concern for the victims of crime.
The report summarised the author’s views, included several quotations and gave examples of Fraser’s statistics.
The report was published on the front page under the bold headlines Violent New Zealand and (in a larger font) Law system “encourages criminals” and began “An international law and order expert says . . .
Mr Bates complained to the newspaper via e-mail on May 2, 2011. Having received no reply by May 23, he then brought his complaint to the Press Council.
He took issue with the claim that the author was “an international law and order expert”, suggesting instead that he was an ex-probation officer.
He disagreed with the statistics cited, pointing out, for example, that international comparisons based on how many people are imprisoned per crimes recorded is meaningless, because reporting and recording crime varies greatly from country to country.
He considered the headlines, especially Law system “encourages criminals” to be inflammatory as well as inaccurate.
In his view the report about the book was “propaganda” for the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Fraser’s opinions had been presented as factual “without any counter opinion being sought”. The newspaper had misinformed readers by its failure to question the views and the credentials of David Fraser.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor pointed out that the opinions expressed in the article had been presented as the views of the author, not the newspaper’s.
The complainant had suggested that the report could have sought the views of Kim Workman, Director of the Rethinking Crime and Punishment group, but Workman’s opinions had been “regularly reported” in the past.
Fraser did have credentials in the law and order field – he was a former analyst for the National Criminal Intelligence Service and had worked for the UK Probation Service for 25 years.
Finally, a range of letters, both for and against the views expressed, had been published the following week.
Discussion and Decision
The Press Council does not accept the complaint that the headlines and captions are misleading.
The caption placed immediately under the image of the front cover of the book is “David Fraser says criminals thrive in New Zealand”. That is certainly his view. Further, the format of Law system “encourages criminals” with quotation marks, makes it abundantly clear that Fraser’s views are being quoted ie it is not the newspaper making the claim.
Overall, the headlines summarise the substance of the report.
The complainant would also have it that the newspaper has failed to make a clear distinction between comment (or opinion) and fact.
The Council Principles in this area state that “an article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such” and this piece puzzled to some extent because it seemed part book review (albeit completely uncritical) and part report about the author and his new book.
Nevertheless, the editor’s argument that it is clear that the opinions of the author are being reported is accepted. The extensive use of quotations is backed by phrases such as “Fraser writes”, “Fraser says”, “he said” and “Fraser argues that . . .”
This part of the complaint is also rejected.
However, the heart of the complaint is that taken as a whole the piece is misleading because it lacks any counter balance to the strong opinions given such prominent coverage.
Here, the Press Council is in agreement with the complainant.
Comment from a source opposed to the views expressed by David Fraser could have easily been sought and published. Even if covered briefly, such comment would have warned readers about accepting the writer’s credentials, statistics and views without some scepticism.
This was particularly important when the newspaper’s report presented Fraser’s analysis so uncritically.
The Council notes and accepts the editor’s comment that the views of Kim Workman have been reported in the past.
However, the Press Council’s Statement of Principles affirms that “in articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the other side”.
The complaint is upheld on the grounds of a lack of balance and fairness.
The dissenting members, Kate Coughlan and Clive Lind, said the story was clearly identified as one man’s opinion contained within his recently published book. As such, the onus on the newspaper to provide some balancing opinion is lessened and there was no absolute obligation to seek alternative views on a well-traversed topic.
Press Council members upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Stephen Stewart, John Roughan, Keith Lees, Chris Darlow and Sandy Gill
Those not upholding were Kate Coughlan and Clive Lind.