Case Number: 2650

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2018

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Comment and Fact
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation


A complaint that an editorial which called President Donald Trump a charlatan breached Principle 4: comment and fact and Principle 5: Columns and Opinion.

The Complaint

Max Shierlaw complained about an editorial published in The Dominion Post on January 10, 2018. It stated “Donald Trump does not have the character needed of an American president. He is a charlatan whose demagoguery, it must be remembered brought victory only because of the warped American electoral system.”

While he acknowledged the editorial was an opinion piece, Mr Shierlaw said there was a requirement for opinions to be based on fact.

He said Wikipedia defined a charlatan as usually a salesperson who sets up an elaborate hoax, or a person who resorts to quackery, pseudoscience or bogus means to impress people to swindle victims by selling worthless goods or services that will not deliver on promises made.

Mr Shierlaw said it was “utter nonsense to use this label against President Trump. Rather than swindle or hoax the US public, President Trump has demonstrated that promises he makes are promises that are kept.”

He listed some campaign promises the president had fulfilled including tax reductions and withdrawing the US from the TPP and the Paris Climate agreement and said most of his supporters did not feel deceived.

He challenged the editor’s definition of charlatan. No definition from a reputable source refers to its meaning as "a politician who is reckless about the truth of his claims or who often lies." No source for such an interpretation was provided and it was just making up a definition to suit her case.

The Dominion Post editorial was just abuse, not supported by fact.It was inaccurate, unbalanced, unfair and defamatory.

The Response

Editor in Chief Central Region, Bernadette Courtney, said the paper reserved its right, through its editorials, to express its views about the US president.

The editorial was an opinion and clearly marked as such. Its comments were partially or wholly expressions of opinion which were backed by facts.

Citing the Macquarie Dictionary she offered the following definition:

Charlatan: “Someone who pretends to more knowledge or skill than they possess; a quack.”

She added to this another unattributed definition saying that “in politics it often refers to a politician who is reckless about the truth of his claims or who often lies.”

The president’s lies and deceits were well documented as were his appeals to prejudice and referred to articles including “Trump Lies: the Definitive List,”The New York Times, December 14, 2017 and “All False statements involving Donald Trump” on thePoliticofact website.

Trump had also been accused of being a charlatan by former vice president Joe Biden and quoted former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney calling him “a phoney, a fraud, his promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.”

The editor said Mr Shierlaw’s list of promises which Trump had put into effect just showed that Mr Trump did not lie about everything. In her view the complaint had no substance.

The Discussion

The relevant Press Council Principles state that comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such and that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

The editorial is clearly the paper’s opinion based on facts drawn on by the editor and she claims there is support for describing Mr Trump as a charlatan.Mr Shierlaw disagrees and has a different assessment of Mr Trump based on his alternative collection of facts. The concepts of freedom of expression mean both views can stand to be judged on their merits without the guidance of the Press Council.

The Press Council is also not the right place to decide whether Mr Trump was defamed.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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