MIKE LODER AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES AND STUFF

Case Number: 3101

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Court Reporting

Overview

[1] Mike Loder has complained about an article that appeared on Stuff and in theWaikato Times on July 22, 2021, titled ‘How crims get their guns – the underworld supplier who sidestepped the law’.

[2] The article is based on the summary of facts at the trial of Gordon McRae, a Taupo meth dealer who, as the journalist put it, was able to “supply firearms to the criminal underworld”. The nub of the story is that McRae convinced people with gun licences to buy firearms for him, before he sold them on the black market. This was reported as a dangerously simple way to “sidestep gun laws”.

[3] The story ran a week after police in Hamilton and Auckland were involved in two gun battles with criminals and during the trial of a man who had shot and killed Constable Matthew Hunt in June 2020.

[4] After reporting on the summary of facts, the reporter includes comment from New Zealand Police Association President Chris Cahill, who says it’s no surprise legal guns are sold illegally and calls for a gun register to monitor the movement of all firearms.

The Complaint

[5] Mr Loder complains under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, saying that the article lacked balance because it “completely excluded comment from the 250,000 licensed firearm owners who are directly affected [the gun register proposals].

[6] Quoting Cahill’s call for a gun register without giving right of reply to gun owners lacks balance, he argues, adding that it seems Stuff is running an agenda.

[7] The complainant also offers arguments against a gun register, saying the police have confirmed that half of the guns they confiscate annually do not have numbers (making them unregisterable) and that pistols are already registered. He also argues other gun-related issues aren’t being reported, such as the import of guns with drugs and 3D printing of weapons.

[8] In his final comment on Stuff’s response, he goes into further detail arguing that if the Police Association said Maori are over-represented in crime and therefore Maori should be placed on a watch list, Maori would get a right of reply. Gun owners should get the same courtesy. The Council of Licenced Firearms Owners (COLFO) are recognised spokespeople available to give balance and are easy to reach.

[9] He says Cahill’s solution to the illegal sales of weapons is a gun register, so the people most affected by that solution should get the chance to argue against it.

[10] Mr Loder says if such a solution is proposed, the article should explore the cost, effectiveness and other elements of that solution. A failure to seek further comment damages the quality of conversation about a very important issue.

The Response

[11] Stuff’s Chief New Director in Waikato, Wayne Timmo stands by the story as a fair and accurate portrayal of court proceedings.

[12] Timmo stresses the week in which the story ran, when police had been involved in two shootings in Hamilton. The court case was a real life and timely example of arguments police and their representatives had been making that week about the availability of firearms and how easy it is for legal firearms to “make their way into criminal hands”.

[13] He continues, “Mr Loder asks why the reporter has not asked numerous other questions not raised by the initial story or interviewed the (presumably representatives of) hundreds of thousands of legitimate owners for a response”. Timmo’s answer is that this is a “relatively self-contained” story about firearms getting into the wrong hands, not wider issues surrounding a gun register. Stuff has done such stories “where they are relevant. This is not one of those occasions”.

[14] Timmo says “the 250,000 legitimate firearms owners” Mr Loder claims to argue for had no involvement in the “criminal gunfire” and the illegal sales of arms, so the story is not about them. A comment from their representatives would offer no balance on those issues. He adds, “Gun owners are an “impossible-to-interview mass of 250,000 who are unlikely to hold a common opinion”.

[15] Police Association boss Chris Cahill was quoted because the shootings that week directly involved police and they “were the ones on the receiving end of criminal gunfire”.

[16] Timmo notes the legal dangers of providing balance in court reports, especially where the balancing views are contrary to the court’s findings.

[17] The issues of 3D guns and gun smuggling are “relatively minor stories” and were not factors in this court case. They have been covered in other articles.

The Decision

[18] The article is in large part a simple court report, recounting Gordon McRae’s court appearance on multiple charges. But because several of those were firearms charges, the use of firearms in shootings had been in the news and McRae’s case provided an example of how legal guns were being easily sold on the black market, the story had been turned into something more.

[19] Many of the points Mr Loder raises in his initial complaint are irrelevant to this story and reflect his wider concern about coverage of firearms issues in the New Zealand media. They are not pertinent to the core question here – whether or not this story is balanced.

[20] Mr Loder makes a reasonable plea to Stuff – and by implication other media – that licensed firearms owners should get a fair hearing in such stories, especially when they are at odds with powerful lobby groups such as the Police Association. He has a point, in response to Timmo’s curious assertion that gun owners are an impossible-to-interview mass, that it’s not hard to seek comment from a representative group such as COLFO.

[21] The Council takes Timmo’s point that news outlets must take a conservative approach in court reports, usually sticking faithfully to what is said in court. But in this case Stuff chose to go outside the courtroom to seek comment from others, so it’s reasonable to ask, ‘if one side of an argument can be safely added to this court report, why not another?’.

[22] Where the Council parts way with Mr Loder is his assertion that by failing to question Cahill about a gun register or adding an opposing voice, Stuff has produced an unbalanced story.

[23] Principle 1 is clear that in long-running issues balance can be achieved over time. This is clearly one such occasion, given the years of extensive coverage given to firearms issues by the New Zealand media.

[24] As Timmo points out, this is a story about a particular court case and a particular issue in a particular week. The angle of the story is how guns can easily be bought legally and sold illegally; it is Cahill who raises the issue of a gun register, not Stuff.

[25] The article is not about gun registers, but rather McRae’s illegal selling of legal guns. The context of gun violence against police is made clear in the first sentence, so an interview with the group that represents police officer is hardly surprising or out of context.

[26] Just because the Police Association uses the opportunity for make its case for a register, does not mean Stuff is required to debate all the pros and cons of that issue in this story. In the same vein, Stuff also isn’t required to delve into the morality of gun shop owners and the pros and cons of reporting unusual sales to police, just because Cahill raises it.

[27] Gun-owners and their representatives have had many opportunities in the past to make their argument against a gun register in relevant stories and will undoubtedly have many opportunities in the future. They do not lack a voice or a chance to balance the arguments made by those in favour of a register.

Decision

[28] In short, not every story has to be about everything and Stuff had every right to use its discretion as to how it handled Cahill’s comments about a gun register.

[29] The complaint under Principle 1 is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Jonathan MacKenzie took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

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