A complaint against the Sunday Star-Times for failing to check alleged inaccuracies in a column by Sandra Coney has been upheld by the Press Council.

In her column in the newspaper on 14 July, Ms Coney criticised the Adoption Amendment Bill, prompting an Auckland reader Michael Edgar to write to the Sunday Star-Times complaining about what he said were four factual errors in the article:
1. She said the bill removed the prohibition on the payment of fees but she failed to mention the agencies had to be non-profit making and could only recover expenses.
2. She said the privacy of the child would not be protected. In fact the Privacy Act would apply.
3. She said there was no time limit on the accreditation of private agencies. She failed to mention the Children and Young Persons’ Service could suspend or revoke accreditation at any time.
4. She said private adoption agencies could go out of existence and adult adoptees might not be able to find out about their history and origins. In fact the Adult Information Act would require accredited adoption agencies to ensure information is readily accessible to individuals.

Mr Edgar said his letter was not for publication but he wanted the Sunday Star-Times to correct “the grossly distorted picture” Ms Coney had presented.

In reply the editor Michael Forbes said since the letter was not for publication, he saw no way he could add to the debate.

Mr Edgar complained to the Press Council on 25 July, saying he did not want to enter a debate, he simply wanted misleading information corrected.

In his response to the Press Council, Mr Forbes said his problem with the complaint centred on the “not for publication” tag on Mr Edgar’s letter. While Mr Edgar wished to retain his anonymity Mr Forbes saw no way he could discuss the issue with Ms Coney.

Mr Edgar in a further letter to the Council, said he could not understand how Mr Forbes would think the letter could not be raised with Ms Coney. He had given Mr Forbes reason to believe the article contained errors. If Mr Forbes was a responsible editor he would check that out.

The Press Council’s view was that while Ms Coney was entitled to express her opinions, Mr Edgar’s complaint related solely to the factual errors, not opinions.

It did not accept Mr Forbes’ argument that he could not have referred the letter on to Ms Coney. Mr Edgar had simply not wanted the letter published. If Mr Forbes had been keen to protect Mr Edgar’s identity, he could have deleted Mr Edgar’s name from the letter.

But, apart from that, Mr Forbes could easily have got one of his own staff to check out Mr Edgar’s claims and, if true, then run a clarification the next week.

The newspaper had a duty to get its facts right. When warned that the article may have contained errors, the paper failed in its duty to check the accuracy of the columns.

The Press Council therefore upheld the complaint.


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