MARTIN DEVLIN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDMartin Devlin complained about three stories published by the New Zealand Herald. The first two reports appeared on the newspaper’s website and the third report was given front page prominence. His complaint about unethical journalism traversed several of the Press Council principles, especially a lack of accuracy, fairness and balance; misleading headlines and captions; and misleading readers by the technical manipulation of a photograph.
Parts of his various complaints are upheld.
The first item Martin Devlin escorted off plane (nzherald online, May 24 at 2.01pm) reported that the broadcaster had been escorted off a plane by police, after the flight had been diverted back to Wellington because of fog in Auckland.
It continued, “witnesses said Devlin was “making a scene” and being “abusive” to the crew after the delays.”
The second item Devlin says cabin staff “overreacted” (nzherald online, May 24 at 5.48pm) added Devlin’s version of the events – he had commented about the delay, asked if the plane had the equipment to fly in fog and the stewardess had over-reacted.
The report repeated the claim that “witnesses on the flight” said Devlin had been making a scene and had been abusive.
The next day, May 25, the newspaper featured a front page story, highlighted by a red headline, AIR RAGE: EVICTED DEVLIN SPEAKS OUT. It was accompanied by a very large photograph of Mr Devlin, captioned CLASH: Devlin says he did nothing wrong but other passengers say he made scene and was abusive. The report noted that no charges had been laid by the police. It also noted that Mr Devlin had been charged after an incident in Auckland (in December, 2010) but those charges had been dropped after he had completed police diversion.
The complainant took exception to the AIR RAGE headline. He suggested that these words meant violent, even dangerous behaviour but the story never stated or explained how he had acted in a violent or threatening manner.
He thought it “grossly unfair” to give such prominent treatment to a minor issue. He pointed to the front page placement, the large photograph and the red headline (which had also been used as billboard advertising).
Although the newspaper had used “passengers say” and “witnesses said”, only one passenger had been spoken to directly. The other “source” the newspaper had relied on was someone who had Tweeted about the incident. Readers were never informed that the second “source” was a Tweet and difficult to verify.
Mr Devlin claimed that he had been denied a right of reply. The newspaper had printed that he was being “abusive” but had failed to contact him to put that allegation to him.
He suggested that the photograph was “highly prejudicial” and may even have been tampered with or photoshopped to be “unnerving”.
Further, the newspaper’s slanted coverage could be seen in its use of emotive language, such as “Clash” (the caption under the photograph), and in not revealing that no charge had been laid by the police until near the end of the article.
In sum, the New Zealand Herald had failed to meet journalistic standards and had been unfair in turning a minor story or even a non-story into a front page “extravaganza”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The deputy editor rejected allegations of unfair and unbalanced reporting.
First, the report explained Mr Devlin’s point of view on the incident (via his comments to TVNZ and then distributed by NZPA) – that the air hostess had over-reacted to a critical but non-threatening remark.
His views had been made the focus and thus it was puzzling to see how the newspaper could be accused of coverage biased against Mr Devlin.
The newspaper had spoken to a passenger, the police and the airline. It also had the words of the Tweeter.
AIR RAGE was not used inaccurately. It was a “generic” term and could be used to describe passenger frustration and complaints at delays. It did not imply violence.
The newspaper had tried to make contact with Mr Devlin. Two detailed messages had been left with his wife and a journalist had attended a Gala Dinner that night to get comment but Mr Devlin had chosen not to attend.
The photograph had not been tampered with nor photoshopped.
Finally, there was indeed a story: six months after facing charges following an incident in which the well-known media presenter jumped on the bonnet of his wife’s car, he has to be escorted off a plane by the police.
Discussion and Decisions
The Press Council was surprised that the newspaper did not try to seek comment from Mr Devlin directly. According to the complainant, “the Herald had my number”.
However, the newspaper tried to contact him through his wife and by later sending a reporter to the Gala Dinner, expecting to see him there
The report did give considerable scope to his rejection of the allegations about making a scene and being abusive. His denials (originally given to TVNZ) were covered at some length.
The Council also rejects his objection to the word “CLASH” which he considered highly emotive. There is little doubt, even amongst the claims and counter-claims, that a stewardess took exception to a remark he passed. .
The suggestion that information that the police had declined to press any charges had been deliberately “buried” towards the end is also rejected. It was important information, placed in a natural position within the article (and several paragraphs from the conclusion).
The complaint that readers had been misled by technical manipulation of a photograph is similarly not upheld. There is no evidence that the image had been tampered with. Further, the newspaper was under no obligation to inform readers that the photograph was file footage rather than a supplied publicity image.
However, there are two particular complaints which gave more concern to the Press Council.
First, the newspaper repeatedly stated the accusations against Mr Devlin. ie “other passengers say he made a scene and was abusive”, “witnesses said he made a scene and was abusive” and “Devlin had been abusive toward an air hostess and was making a scene one passenger said”. There is a clear sense of people in general agreement and confirming the accusations.
Yet the newspaper seems to have spoken only to one (unidentified) passenger who was making this claim about Mr Devlin. Any backing for this version of events seems to have merely been a Tweet, a Tweet that was apparently deleted shortly after making it.
The Deputy Editor stresses that the Tweet confirms that he was “abusive”.
However, Mr Devlin claims that he contacted the Tweeter who said he composed . . . “Devlin escorted off our fog delayed flight by 2 police. Hostess told me he was abusive. He tells me it was nothing.”
The Tweeter was obviously not a direct witness of the situation. Instead he repeats what he was told by an air hostess, (and according to the complainant’s submission, a different hostess from the one who had taken offence at his comments).
The accusation that Mr Devlin had been abusing staff is a serious one and it needed careful verification and corroboration. It is not enough to claim that fair and reasonable balance was given simply by publishing his denials.
Secondly, the heading AIR RAGE: EVICTED DEVLIN SPEAKS OUT is over-exaggerated and not justified by the article over which it is placed.
Devlin was not “evicted” from the plane by the police, he was escorted.
More importantly, the Press Council does not accept the argument raised by the newspaper that a Wikipedia definition of “air rage” allows the term to be used to mean the general frustration felt by passengers annoyed by lengthy delays.
It takes the view that “Air Rage” suggests aggressive behaviour, behaviour exhibiting a loss of control, and there is no evidence of such action in the article. He certainly may have made an ill-considered remark, but there is no suggestion that he became violently angry.
These two complaints about a lack of accuracy and a misleading headline are upheld. Finally, the Council turned to Mr Devlin’s overriding contention that he was treated unfairly because the newspaper twisted a minor story into a “front page extravaganza”.
The Council has been loath in the past to delineate the positioning that editors might give to stories, for prominence inevitably depends on transitory factors, such as the relative importance of other news items on any given day.
Furthermore, the Press Council accepts that police escorting such a public figure from a plane, especially given the previous incident, was a valid story for the newspaper to cover.
Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of the red headline, the power of “AIR RAGE”, a particularly large photograph, the dominant position on the front page, the three times repeated phrasing of “making a scene and being abusive”, as well as the details about previous charges, has to be weighed in terms of general fairness.. In short, was this report so sensationalised that it became “overcooked” and thus unfair to Mr Devlin?
On balance, and despite its long-standing reluctance to adjudicate on the placement of stories, the Press Council unanimously agreed that the overall coverage was indeed unfair. This aspect of his complaint is also upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.