MARTYN STEWART AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

The New Zealand Press Council has declined to uphold a complaint from Martyn Stewart, a reader of the New Zealand Herald against that newspaper.

Mr Stewart was so incensed last year by the Herald’s political coverage and its refusal to publish a subsequent letter from him criticising it, that he wrote a book about it titled A Smack in the Gob, and delivered it, together with a second letter to the newspaper.

Having not received satisfaction from the newspaper he then wrote to the Press Council because he was upset at what he saw as the Herald’s “seditious” bias. The dispute began with the edition of 23 November. That day the paper devoted considerable space to reports of the Labour Party annual conference, and several column inches to a report of a speech by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at Orewa. In that speech, Mr Peters compared the costs of the Winebox Inquiry, which he had sparked, with those of a local murder inquiry.

Mr Stewart, upset at what he saw as the disparity in coverage, wrote to the newspaper accusing it, among other things, of “blatant” bias and “appalling imbalance.” He also expressed concerns at what he perceived as denigration by Herald reports of NZ First and its members.

The Herald’s deputy editor Bruce Morris subsequently replied, saying he found Mr Stewart’s points extravagant and that it was incorrect to suggest the paper had failed in its duty to its readers.

On November 23, the paper had covered Labour’s annual conference, he wrote. How that could be compared to coverage of a speech by Mr Peters that no other media outlet had reported, was beyond him. He compared the situation to that of a week earlier when NZ First had held its conference and received fair treatment. At that time, Labour had received no coverage.

In later correspondence with the Press Council, Mr Morris said Mr Stewart’s first letter, rather than having been intended for publication, had seemed to invite a personal response, which he had provided.

Mr Stewart told the Council he saw the decision not to publish his initial letter as censure because the letter had criticised the New Zealand Herald – his right of free speech had been denied, he said. Further, the deputy editor had not explained why he didn’t publish the letter. Mr Stewart explained to the Council that he believed New Zealanders need to better understand the facts of the Winebox Inquiry.

Further correspondence was presented to the Press Council, including a copy of Mr Stewart’s book and a more lengthy considered submission from him. That argued, in essence, that in Mr Stewart’s view the New Zealand newsmedia had become less and less critical of political excesses and had been negatively inclined to the Winebox Inquiry.

Mr Morris said he had nothing to add.

The Press Council found that the Herald had no case to answer. Its coverage of a party political conference, and that of a speech by a politician, had been unexceptional. Editors had the right and the responsibility to decide what weight to give to various news events in their newspapers’ columns.

Furthermore, editors had a prerogative as to which letters to the editor they chose for publication. There was no evidence to suggest that that prerogative had been capriciously exercised in this instance.

The complaint is not upheld.

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