MATTHEW THREDGOLD AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD / STUFF

Case Number: 2774

Council Meeting: APRIL 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading

Overview

On March 6, Stuff / Manawatu Standard published a column by Karl Du Fresne titled “Three White Men who dominate public conversation”.It is clearly marked Opinion.In the column, du Fresne discussed recent events involving as he puts it three ‘white males who are – or were until recently… - in positions of power’.He outlines his views on recent events surrounding Donald Trump, George Pell and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Complaint

Matthew Thredgold complains that statements in the column regarding Cardinal Pell were inaccurate.du Fresne writes “Cardinal Pell.Did he sexually molest two choir boys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne?A jury decided that he did, but at an earlier trial on the same charges, a different jury was deadlocked, 10-2 in favour of acquittal”.

Mr Thredgold points out that the results of the jury in that trial have not been made public, the end result of the jury would only be known by its members.He points out that it is a criminal offence for any member of that jury to reveal the result and to date there has been no evidence that any member has done so.While there may be rumours, Mr Thredgold argues, there is no confirmation of this.

Mr Thredgold goes on to question du Fresne’s views about the second the jury trial and his ability to have a view given he has not been present in the courtroom to hear the victim testimony.

The Response

Matthew Dallas, Manawatū editor for Stuff responds.It must be noted that Stuff lost Mr Thredgold’s original email of complaint and denied receiving it.On receipt of proof that it was sent, they then acknowledged it.

Mr Dallas states that du Fresne’s article is opinion and as such “is not bound by the Accuracy, Fairness and Balance principle” but acknowledges that “du Fresne’s opinion must stem from a foundation of fact, as in accordance with the other two principles”.

Mr Dallas also states that the 10-2 vote cannot be verified and the reference should have included the word ‘reportedly’ and so was amended accordingly.He argues that this is a minor point as du Fresne was focused instead on his main point about whether a fair trial was possible given all the publicity.

He concludes by acknowledging Mr Thredgold’s right to criticise du Fresne’s views but the column does not breach any Media Council principles.

The Decision

Generally, matters of accuracy are dealt with under Principle 1. However, for opinion pieces the issue is governed by Principles 4 and 5. Where relevant they state:

“4. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.”

“5. Though requirements for a foundation of fact pertain, with comment and opinion balance is not a requirement.”

This complaint falls to be determined within the ambit of those two principles.

Consistently the Media Council has upheld the importance of accuracy in opinion pieces.In Raukura Waiti againstThe Weekend Herald the Council states “Freedom of expression does give a very generous licence in an opinion piece but that licence is not unlimited.The material facts on which the opinion is based need to be accurate.”

In Delaware Bay Residents Association against the Nelson Mail, the Council acknowledged “that opinion may be freely expressed in an editorial column but that any information given as fact should be accurate”.

In this complaint, du Fresne’s column presented conjecture as fact.Stuff has sought to address this by inserting the word ‘reportedly’ into the sentence in question as soon as this was pointed out.While, Mr Dallas would argue this is for clarity, the Council sees this as an important correction to address an inaccuracy.Regardless of whether the result of the jury was widely discussed in other media or not, it was not confirmed as fact.

The Media Council recommends that Stuff correct its record of the print version as well to ensure there is no on-going inaccuracy.

In regard to Mr Thredgold’s disagreement with the views about the second jury trial, du Fresne is free to question whether it could be held free from influence. In doing so, there is no breach of any Media Council principles.Indeed, this illustrates the importance of opinion columns: to engender debate and discussion as has happened here and therefore the importance of their factual accuracy.

While the Media Council acknowledges that Stuff receives many emails each day, and they have apologised for their error in misplacing this complaint, we strongly recommend the systems for managing complaints are reviewed and strengthened.

Stuff, once alerted to the complaint, made the correction swiftly, and as such the complaint is not upheld.However, the Press Council notes its disappointment in the amount of elapsed time between the publication of the article and its correction.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jenny Farrell, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.