JOSEF WILLIAMS AND OTHERS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2782

Council Meeting: June 2019

Verdict: Upheld in Part

  1. Six complainants have lodged individual complaints about an article published by Stuff on March 30, 2019. All of them submit that the article breaches Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and Principle 7 (discrimination and diversity) of the Media Council principles. Hayley Cumming, Mandy Flavell and Josef Williams also refer to Principle 2 (privacy); Ms Cumming to Principle 3 (children and young persons); Ms Cumming, Marc Macleod, Mr Williams and Cameron Mottus to Principle 4 (comment and fact); Ms Cumming and Mr Mottus to principle 5 (Columns, blogs, opinions and Letters); Ms Cumming, Mr Macleod and Mr Mottus to Principle 6 (Headlines and captions; Ms Cumming to Principle 8 (confidentiality); Ms Cumming and Ms Flavell to Principle 9 (subterfuge) and Mr Mottus to Principle 12 (Corrections).It is noted that Stephen McNallen does not refer to specific principles, but his concerns are largely covered by Principles 1 and 4.
  2. The Media Council upholds one element of the complaint, unfairness, but does not uphold the remainder of it.

Background

  1. On March 30, 2019, Stuff published a feature article by Andrea Vance headed “How a strange Thor-worshipping religion is linked to the Christchurch mosque shootings”. The article appeared online and in The Dominion Post and The Press. The section headline for the online version was “The ‘religion’ of supremacy” and was followed by an introduction “A leader insists it’s peaceful. Experts say it’s hateful and dehumanising. The Christchurch gunman seems to have been a sympathiser.” Both print articles were headed “The ‘religion’ of supremacy”. The second page heading was “Thor-worship’s link to killings”.
  2. The main theme of the article is that there are similarities between the philosophies of Ásatrú Folk Assembly (AFA), an offshoot of which has been established in New Zealand by Mr Mottus under the name of the Fensalir Kindred, and those expressed by the man accused of the Christchurch mosque shootings. The article also mentions shared symbolism and connections with far right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
  3. The article draws on an interview with Mr Mottus, material from news media and social media, an interview with Terry A Gunnell, described as a professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland and an expert in Ásatrúarfélag, and an interview with Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich from the Victoria University School of Social and Cultural Studies.
  4. All complainants except Mr Mottus lodged relatively short complaint letters and received identical short responses from Stuff. Mr Mottus lodged his lengthy complaint letter a little later and received a very full response. The Media Council has therefore largely addressed Mr Mottus’ complaint except where other complainants have raised points that are missing from his complaint. 

The Complaints

  1. In general, the complainants say that their organisation has been inaccurately and unfairly represented as a racist, white supremacist body with links to, and shared philosophies with, extremist groups overseas. In particular, they complain that it is unfair and inaccurate to link them with the man accused of the Christchurch mosque shootings.
  2. In addition they complain that:
    • the references to their ethnicity and religion, along with the descriptions of their religious practices (such as describing them as “whimsical” and “batty”), amount to disrespect and unfair discrimination
    • there has been a disclosure of personal information about Mr Mottus, amounting to a breach of privacy
    • it was not necessary to refer to Mr Mottus’ young children and against their interests to do so
    • the article presents the author’s opinion as fact
    • the headline is inaccurate in linking the group to the Christchurch mosque shootings.
  3. At a later stage, Mr Mottus supplied a lengthy response with a good deal of background material and a point-by-point rebuttal of the Stuff response to the complaints. By way of final comment he made two main points: that the article was an opinion piece (with some facts) “with the intent of demonizing/belittling my native spirituality (Asatru) and its followers in New Zealand” and advocating the ethnocide of European people.

Stuff Response

  1. Stuff’s initial response (to all the complainants except Mr Mottus) was a short letter from Keith Lynch, Deputy Editor, the main points of which were:
    • “We believe our reporting is sound and very much in the public interest”
    • The reporting makes it clear that the Ásatrú Folk Assembly is linked to white supremacy
    • The shooter spoke of Valhalla and his manifesto bore Odin’s cross
    • The reporting makes it clear that not all followers of the Ásatrú religion are extremists.
  2. Mr Lynch’s first response to Mr Mottus was similar to the standard letter cited above, but with the addition of a statement that Mr Mottus had been given ample opportunity to speak on the topic and had been accurately reported. He also acknowledged and agreed to correct two minor errors, and provided evidence in support of one of the statements that Mr Mottus had described as inaccurate.
  3. In a later response (to Mr Mottus’ complaint as made to the Media Council), Mr Lynch addressed the complaint in more detail. His main point was that there are ideological commonalities between the Christchurch shooter and the AFA and Fensalir Kindred.He noted links between the motives expressed by the man accused of the Christchurch mosque shooting and Mr Mottus’ beliefs, such as the “Great Replacement” theory and the use of the “14 words” slogan. He provided evidence of links between the AFA and white supremacist violence, particularly at Charlottesville, and quoted from material published by other “pagan” groups overseas condemning the stance of the AFA.
  4. Addressing the complaints of discrimination, Mr Lynch submits that nothing in the article is attempting to limit Mr Mottus’ rights under the Bill of Rights Act and notes that the Media Council principles permit discussion of religion when that discussion is in the public interest.

Discussion

  1. Essentially, the complainants present their organisation as one with a harmless focus on the pre-Christian culture and religion of northern Europe while the Stuff article paints a more sinister picture of a group with ideas drawn from, and links with, overseas organisations that appear to have influenced the man accused of the Christchurch shootings. It is not the function of the Media Council to determine where the truth lies on this issue, but rather whether Stuff has, in reporting on it, complied with the requirements of good journalism as expressed in the Media Council principles.
  2. In determining this complaint, the Media Council has had regard to the nature of the article in question as a feature article. Such articles are not in themselves opinion articles, although they may contain material that is the opinion of the author. Accordingly the requirements of accuracy, fairness and balance apply, and any comment or opinion must be clearly distinguishable from fact.

Principle 1- Accuracy, fairness and balance

  1. Principle 1 requires publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting. The complainants’ main concerns have to do with accuracy and fairness, but for the sake of completeness, the Media Council has considered the question of balance and has found no imbalance. While the writer makes it clear that she does not accept Mr Mottus’ views, a substantial amount of the article consists of direct or indirect quotes from her conversation with Mr Mottus and from his remarks published electronically. Although the accuracy of other elements in the article has been questioned, there is no suggestion that Mr Mottus has been quoted inaccurately, and there is certainly enough information for the reader to form his or her own opinion about Mr Mottus and his organisation. Mr Mottus’ remarks are balanced by material from two academics.
  2. In connection with the principle of accuracy, it is important to state that the Media Council is solely concerned with the accuracy of Stuff’s reporting. It cannot and does not comment on the accuracy of remarks made by those interviewed for the article.
  3. Most of the concerns of the complainants seem to be directed at the interpretation of the facts by Stuff rather than their accuracy, but the main inaccuracies they identify appear to be:
    • Mr McNallen, the AFA founder, does not use the “14 words”
    • The “great replacement” (used in the title of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto) is not a conspiracy theory and it has not been mentioned in connection with New Zealand
    • The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto does not contain evidence of Islamophobia.
    • There has been no suggestion of a white genocide, imaginary or otherwise, in South Africa
    • The Freikorps were never used by the Third Reich (and in any event, the reference to it was ironic, not factual).
  4. Some of these items are not inaccurate. For example, Stuff has produced evidence of the use of the “14 words” slogan by Mr McNallen. In general, the Media Council does not consider the remaining inaccuracies, if they are inaccuracies, to be material. To take one example, Mr Mottus says he has never claimed there is a white genocide in South Africa, although he and his group have donated to the South African Family Relief Project, a South Africa charity working with poor white people in South Africa. The official website for the project says that it “stands for the survival and rights of our white minority group in South Africa”. Similarly, it is hard to go past Stuff’s submission that the Christchurch gunmen’s manifesto must be seen in the context of his actions, which are clear proof of Islamophobia.The position is not as clear cut as Mr Mottus submits, and the same holds for other claimed inaccuracies.
  5. 21. At the core of this complaint is the question of fairness. Mr Mottus is undoubtedly correct when he says there is a philosophical divide on which he and Stuff are not going to agree, and many New Zealanders would reject the views of the AFA and those associated with it. Stuff has produced evidence of the views of reputable bodies overseas, which link the AFA outside New Zealand with right-wing violence and it was appropriate that, in the context of the Christchurch shootings, it should investigate the New Zealand connection of the organisation. It is understandable that, in that context, Stuff and its journalist should express feelings of repugnance at the information they uncovered.
  6. 22. However the Media Council is not satisfied that the shared philosophies that Stuff has identified are sufficient to support the claim that Mr Mottus and his organisation are “linked to the Christchurch mosque shootings”. There may be a link between the mosque shootings and the wider AFA movement outside of New Zealand, but a reader of the Stuff article could reasonably take away the message that Mr Mottus or members of his New Zealand group were more closely involved either by contact with the shooter or by condoning the violence that occurred or in similar ways. Given the likelihood of a strong public reaction to the claim, any publication would need to be very sure of its ground before making such a claim, and the Media Council is not satisfied that the evidence Stuff has produced is sufficient to support the claim of a “link”.

Principle 2 – Privacy

  1. This principle recognises that everyone is entitled to privacy, but that the right to privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public interest. Three of the complainants have said this principle has been breached, but apart from Ms Cumming, they have not specified the nature of the breach. Ms Cumming complains of the disclosure of personal information about Mr Mottus. Mr Mottus has said that his safety has been put at risk by the article, but has not specifically complained of a breach of privacy.
  2. Mr Lynch submits that that in founding the Fensalir Kindred, Mr Mottus “embraced a position of community leadership”, and the AFA website refers to folkbuilders as “the face of the AFA in the different regions of the world”. It seems clear that Mr Mottus assumed a public position and in doing so created a legitimate public interest in his background and personal history. The information disclosed in the articlewas not in itself sufficient to identify Mr Mottus’ address or employer – there are somewhat over 10,000 residents in Kaiapoi and many IT service companies in New Zealand (the article does not specify the location of his employment). It is accepted that Mr Mottus has felt threatened as a result of the article, but that in itself is not evidence of a breach of privacy. His name is comparatively unusual, and once in the public arena, as it was before the Stuff article, it would not be particularly difficult to find out more about him.

Principle 3 – Children and young people

  1. This principle protects the interests of children and young people in cases involving them.The Media Council does not consider that the interests of Mr Mottus’ children are affected by the mere mention of them without any further identifying information.

Principle 4 – Comment and fact

  1. Principle 4 requires that a clear distinction be drawn between comment and fact, and that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. The question of accuracy is considered above.
  2. Almost all of the article is either straightforward reporting of fact, such as the opening paragraphs describing “glima”, or reporting on the results of the author’s research, or recording material from interviews with Mr Mottus and with the two academics. However, the author does express her opinion in describing some of Mr Mottus beliefs as “whimsical and perhaps a little odd” or “eccentric and a bit batty” and at one point as “repugnant”. In the view of the Media Council, the language used by the author here, which is rather different from the more formal tone of the rest of the article, makes it clear that she is expressing an opinion or comment.More seriously she says that “Mottus’ faith has a dark, white supremacist underbelly” and that the AFA romanticises violence and tries to make its racism palatable by dressing it up as ethnic preservation. However these statements are accompanied by the evidence on which she bases them, and it is clear from the context that these are conclusions she has drawn, not necessarily statements of fact.

Principle 6 – Headlines and captions.

  1. The requirement here is that a headline or caption should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to over.The complainants obviously dispute the fairness of the headline on the online article (see above), but there is no doubt that it conveys a key element of the article.
  2. The headline “The ‘religion’ of supremacy” similarly reflects a main theme of the article – that there are links between the followers of Ásatrú in the AFA and white supremacists overseas.

Principle 7 - Discrimination and diversity.

  1. The complaints effectively complain of breaches of the Bill of Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against ethnic, religious and other minorities. The remit of the Media Council is somewhat narrower.Principle 7 recognises that that there can be a legitimate public interest in the discussion of issues of gender, religion, minority groups and other categories. Publication in the public interest is therefore permitted so long as there is no gratuitous emphasis on the category in question.
  2. The Media Council is satisfied that, in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, there is a substantial public interest in the discussion of the sort of philosophies attributed to the AFA and Fensalir Kindred.It also notes that the ethnic identification of the groups is northern European, and northern Europeans are not a minority in New Zealand. The only question, therefore, is whether there is gratuitous emphasis on the religion of the groups and their members. There is certainly some emphasis on their religious beliefs, but, given that the religious and philosophical aspects of their beliefs are inseparable, the Media Council finds that the emphasis is not gratuitous. The question of the terms used to describe the religious practices of AFA and Fensalir Kindred is considered above under Principle 4, but the Media Council also reiterates the principle that there is no right not to be offended. Mr Mottus and the other complainants undoubtedly find the description of their beliefs and practices disrespectful and offensive, but that is not of itself grounds for a finding of gratuitous emphasis on them.

Principles 5, 8, 9 and 12

  1.  While the complainants have cited these principles in connection with their complaints, it appears they have misunderstood their application. The article in question is not a column, blog, opinion or letter and accordingly Principle 5 does not apply. Principle 8, the confidentiality principle, protects against the disclosure of confidential sources, and there was no involvement of confidential sources in this article. Principle 9 prohibits the obtaining of information by subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonest means. All the information on which the article was based appears to have been given willingly in interviews or to be the results of the author’s research. Principle 12 addresses the appropriate action when there has been an error in a publication. It applies only when there is agreement that there has been an error.

Determination

  1. On the evidence before it the Media Council upholds the complaint about fairness but does not uphold any of the other complaints. According to the Media Council rules, Stuff will be obliged to publish a summary of this opinion, with a link to the full ruling, and is required to annotate the existing article.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Tracy Watkins took no part in the consideration of this complaint.