MAX SHIERLAW AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2885

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] On 11 January 2020, RNZ published a story about a police raid on the home of Dieuwe de Boer, who police suspected of having an illegal firearm. The story and headline described Mr de Boer as a “far-right activist” and quoted a story he had written on Right Minds NZ, a website he co-founded, about the police search and the fact that nothing was found.

The Complaint

[2] There were two complaints and as both complaints were similar they will be considered together.

[3] Pascal Janse van Vuuren complained under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 2: Comment and Fact, and Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity. He complained about the use of the term “far-right” which he said was closely associated with “alt-right” and “by virtue of media association, white supremacy”. Mr Janse van Vuuren said he believed the headline was inaccurate and “given the nature of the article represents a real threat to freedom of speech in our democracy”. Mr de Boer was a conservative and right-wing, and while the complainant said he didn’t necessarily agree with his viewpoints, he should be free to speak his mind. Associating Mr de Boer with the alt-right and white supremacy was close to bullying and discriminatory.

[4] Holding anti-immigration views did not qualify him as “far right”, Mr Janse van Vuuren said. In fact, anti-immigration views were just as predominant among those who would identify as “far left”. To characterise someone who holds right wing views as “far-right” set a dangerous precedent for shutting down “what is half our population’s political views”. Mr Janse van Vuuren added: “To further try to smear him inaccurately as a white supremacist is a slur that should not be allowed to stand.”

[5] Max Shierlaw also complained under Principles 1 and 4 about the use of the term “far-right”. Mr de Boer was a Christian, a conservative, a family man and supports gun ownership, he said. That did not make him a “far-right activist”, a term more properly used for neo-Nazis and racists, which Mr de Boer was not.

The Response

[6] RNZ responded that although it did not believe the “far-right activist” description was incorrect, even if it was, this would not have been of any significance because the main thrust of the article was not Mr de Boer’s political views but a story about a police raid on his home. “Earlier decisions have indicated that inaccuracies in the story can be allowed for or admitted without a complaint being upheld if the audience’s understanding of the issue at hand is not affected by the inaccuracy.”

[7] However RNZ stood by its decision to use the term “far-right” to describe Mr de Boer, because of his published views on topics such as immigration. Other media had used the description. Mr de Boer had agreed with some aspects of the Christchurch mosque shooter’s manifesto and expressed a degree of sympathy for the great replacement theory. He had opposed the UN Compact on Migration and written extensively on his opposition to Islam, including describing it as “fundamentally incompatible with Western values and culture”. This led RNZ to decide that it was reasonable to describe him as “far right”.

[8] RNZ had not described Mr de Boer as alt-right. With respect to fairness, RNZ also said that engaging in the issues that Right Minds covers he could expect public attention and criticism and there is no suggestion of any harm that had come from the “far-right” description.

[9] In a final submission RNZ also noted that Mr de Boer did not seem to take offence to the term far-right. RNZ quoted an article he had written: “I don't mind if they call me names, but they can at least ballpark my ideology correctly… So take your pick: conservative, capitalist, imperialist, coloniser, or right-wing nut job. Even "far right" isn't so bad. I am indeed very far to the right of Marx, Gentile, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, Che and every other socialist mass-murdering lunatics out there.”

[10] In response to this final RNZ comment Janse van Vuuren noted that the article was written in 2018 in a more benign political environment. “That does not mean it is an accurate description, merely that at the time he didn’t consider it a dangerous description and was willing to accept the inaccuracy in it when he is discussing how people have inaccurately labelled him as a ‘fascist’.”Mr Shierlaw also objected, saying the Council should look at the quotation in the context of the whole article, which he supplied. It was a defence against being called a fascist and the "far right" reference was a joke.

The Decision

[11] The Council has considered the complaint under Principle 1: Fairness, Balance and Accuracy as this captures the essence of the complaint: Was it fair and accurate to label Mr de Boer “far-right”?

[12] The Council does not agree with RNZ that even though it was only a minor element of the story, the description of Mr de Boer as “far-right” would have been able to be overlooked had it been incorrect, because it was not the main thrust of the story. It also does not agree that because he had been described as far-right in other media this is justification for using the term. In fairness to Mr de Boer, the label that was applied to him should be reasonable.

[13] The term “far-right” is a loose one, and subject to ambiguity and interpretation. It can be used to simply describe those who are at the right-wing end of conservative politics, but it is also used to describe those who hold nationalistic, racist views.

[14] Mr Janse van Vuuren was concerned that the use of the term “far-right” connected Mr de Boer with the “alt-right” white supremacist viewpoint. The Council does not concur that far-right has these extreme connotations.

[15] It is RNZ’s view that Mr de Boer’s statements put him somewhere on the far-right continuum and the Council agrees that, while “far-right” is an inexact term, it was not an unreasonable description. While not everyone who opposes immigration has far-right views, Mr de Boer has also been openly critical of Islam, saying it was “fundamentally incompatible with western values and culture”, has expressed support for nationalism and had supported visiting speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, whose views have consistently been described as far-right. It was also telling that Mr de Boer himself had been quoted as saying that “far right” might not be a bad description of his views.

[16] The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

Jonathan MacKenzie stood down to maintain the public member majority.