MICHAEL MORRIS AGAINST FMCGDr Michael Morris, past chair of the Campaign Against Factory Farming, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about a column in the monthly magazine, FMCG, a trade publication of some 8172 circulation, which covers the businesses of manufacturing, logistics and supermarketing.
The column about broiler chickens appeared in the magazine’s July 2007 edition. Written by Michael Brooks, it was headed Chicken and eggs don’t really go together.
Dr Morris wrote a letter to the editor critical of the column. The editor declined to publish it, largely on the grounds that the magazine never published letters to the editor. Dr Morris complained to the Press Council alleging inaccuracy and lack of balance and that the magazine had misled readers by omission.
The complaint is not upheld, although the Press Council notes that the absence of a descriptive sentence explaining the author of the column was the executive director of the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand was unfortunate.
Mr Brooks’s column described the development of broiler chickens in New Zealand. It included the sentences: “Much like the two-legged New Zealanders, the modern Kiwi chook is demonstrating the benefits of good breeding, freedom from disease and an overall better quality of life and health brought about by modern farming methods and biosecurity measures. Just as we are taller and bulkier than our ancestors, the chicken which, by the same comparison, has advanced the equivalent of hundreds of generations, is an altogether larger, healthier specimen than it has ever been. It also remains a breed apart from its egg-laying cousin with natural breeding selection fostering the attributes of each breed suitable to its various production qualities. This means that the egg you eat today is not the poultry meat you eat tomorrow.”
On September 14, Dr Morris wrote via email a letter for publication to FMCG’s managing editor, John Winter, wishing to “correct some untrue statements” about the welfare of broiler chickens. “Modern chickens are not larger because they are healthier and happier,” he wrote. “Quite the contrary. The modern broiler is a genetic freak; selectively bred to grow so quickly that their legs and hearts cannot cope with the extra weight. Animal welfare scientists of international renown agree that this has meant increased incidence of lameness and metabolic disorders such as ascites in broilers. After studies showed that up to 20 percent of European broilers are in constant pain from lameness for the last third of their lives, Professor John Webster of Bristol University described the modern broiler industry as perhaps the ‘single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.’ A recent New Zealand study on lameness has revealed that up to 40 percent of broilers may be suffering from this painful condition.”
On October 15, Dr Morris asked when his letter would be published. The managing editor responded it was not the magazine’s practice to publish readers’ letters. He added that he had forwarded the letter to Mr Brooks and had advised the columnist that if he felt the need to address issues raised by Dr Morris in a subsequent column, he would publish whatever he [Mr Brooks] submitted.
Dr Morris replied the same day saying he believed publication of one point of view and not providing equal space to an opposing viewpoint breached the Press Council’s guidelines on balance, but he would be satisfied if his letter was published or if he could publish a longer and properly referenced article.
In reply the same day, the managing editor said he was not going to publish an alternative point of view on a subject he did not know and he had forwarded it to Mr Brooks because he was in a better position to know the substance of the complaint. The managing editor said this was a fair and balanced response to the complaint and Mr Brooks had chosen not to take further action because he disagreed with the points made. If Dr Morris wished to take up the matter with Mr Brooks and the latter agreed to cover the points raised, he would publish this. He repeated it was not the magazine’s practice to publish letters.
Substance of the Complaint
The same day, Dr Morris complained to the Press Council saying the column was factually in error and lacking balance.
He supported his criticism of the broiler chicken industry with seven peer-reviewed references and nine references to his own publications on animal welfare.
He believed forwarding his letter to Mr Brooks was unprofessional because the letter was clearly marked for publication, not for “private distribution” to a contributor. He sought an apology for this action and an assurance it would not happen again.
He also believed the managing editor’s response to his complaint of lack of balance was unsatisfactory. He had admitted ignorance about broiler chickens but if he was too ignorant to publish an alternative viewpoint, he was surely too ignorant to publish the original column.
Dr Morris said it was understandable the managing editor would want his letter to be scrutinised by an independent expert but it was not acceptable for the letter to be vetted by the person whose views he was rebutting. As head of an industry lobby group, Mr Brooks would be expected to back the status quo.
He criticised the absence of any indication on the article that Mr Brooks headed the poultry industry’s association
The Magazine’s Response
The managing editor said the magazine had never had a letters section. Mr Brooks was one of a number of specialists who contributed a monthly column to the magazine.
While the managing editor had a strong knowledge of supermarkets and how they work, there were many specialisations and it would be impossible for him to have knowledge and understanding of every industry that dovetailed into it. That was why he had such specialists.
His initial reaction to Dr Morris’s letter was to advise him he had no letters section and therefore there was no place to publish it, but Dr Morris insisted it be published in fairness and because Mr Brooks was wrong. He did not have the in-depth knowledge to know if that were so and his expert in that field was Mr Brooks. He considered the letter his property and he forwarded to Mr Brooks.
His other thought had been to run the letter as a news story but Mr Brooks did not wish to be involved. As a result, he advised Dr Morris he would not be publishing the letter.
The managing editor said the magazine is not available to the general public but is a business-to-business trade magazine. It was not a platform for those outside the supermarket industry to air their opinions merely because they disagree with an expert option published within.
Rights of Reply
In his right of reply, Dr Morris reiterated Mr Brooks was not an expert in this field, and also disputed his letter was the managing editor’s property. Copyright remained with the writer. It was inexcusable to distribute his letter to a contributor.
While FMCG was a trade magazine for the supermarket industry, this made balanced information even more important. Supermarkets were important “gateways” in influencing consumer behaviour, as the debate over genetic modification had shown. It was his intention to provide an alternative viewpoint in the hope supermarket managers would be able to make a more informed choice on which products they wished to stock.
The managing editor, in his right of reply, said he had made no claim Mr Brooks was either an expert or independent. He wrote on behalf of the industry and was impartial in that he represented no company individually.
His affiliation was normally noted at the end of each article but was omitted on that particular column.
He disputed Dr Morris’s view on copyright. It was addressed to him as an employee of the company and Dr Morris had no rights over to whom he showed it. To suggest otherwise would mean it would be impossible to verify the contents of anything sent to him.
FMCG was not available to the general public. If Dr Morris had an issue with supermarkets selling poultry, he should take this up with the two supermarket companies and not try to use the industry trade magazine as a lever to persuade them into action. If FMCG was both a trade and consumer magazine and available to the general public, there might be some substance in Dr Morris’s complaint. But it was not.
As managing editor, he decided what the magazine would publish. Dr Morris seemed to be under the impression that anyone could dictate what a magazine could publish. FMCG did not encourage readers’ letters and had no feature where they could be published.
The complaint involves a column written by Michael Brooks for FMCG, and there is a difference between a column and an article, where balance and fairness would play a larger role. Columnists are entitled to state their views, and even to be wrong.
Nevertheless, where a columnist is an advocate for an organisation, as in this case, a publication should identify the columnist. FMCG’s failure to do so in this case was a regrettable lapse and could have misled the reader. The Press Council notes Mr Brooks is identified in the November issue of FMCG.
Dr Morris sought redress through a letter to the editor. FMCG has a policy of not printing letters from readers. While that is unusual in that publications usually wish to encourage debate among readers, the Press Council cannot condemn the policy if the magazine is consistent.
Further, the Press Council’s Principle 12 states: “Selection and treatment of letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest on the correspondents’ views.” Even if FMCG did publish letters from readers, the managing editor would not have been obliged to print Dr Morris’s letter.
The managing editor’s position was, however, weakened when he said he considered the letter as a possible article, with a response from Mr Brooks, but did not take this course when Mr Brooks would not further engage.
It is normal policy for many publications to refer critical letters to those who wrote the criticised articles or columns, and the Press Council does not criticise the managing editor for referring Dr Morris’s letter to Mr Brooks.
At the same time, however, columnists should expect their views to be challenged and the managing director has allowed an unfortunate impression to arise that a columnist with a particular view was able to influence further coverage of a different viewpoint.
It is also difficult to accept the managing editor’s belief that Dr Morris should take up the issue through the two major supermarket chains and not through a specific trade publication aimed at supermarkets. As the recent fireworks and genetic modification debates have shown, supermarkets are well aware of customer perceptions and react accordingly. It is odd a trade publication would not want to engage in such issues when it would appear to be an ideal platform.
Moreover, while the managing editor says the magazine is not for the general public, the Press Council notes FMCG does encourage subscriptions within the magazine itself and therefore ordinary members of the public could presumably buy it if they wished.
On balance, and despite disquiet at some of the explanations given, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.