The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by New Tang Dynasty Culture and Art Exchange Centre Inc (“New Tang”) about articles published in The New Zealand Herald newspaper on 7 April and 15 April 2008 respectively.

New Tang, the promoter of a Chinese performing arts programme, complained to the Press Council that a newspaper article headlined “VIPs again steering clear of Falun Gong-linked show” published on 7 April 2008 breached principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and principle 2 (corrections) of the Statement of Principles.

Further, New Tang complained that the article headlined “Green MP supports show with links to Falun Gong” published in 15 April 2008 similarly breached these principles.

The Complaint
New Tang’s complaints (in summary form and in relation to both articles) are as follows:-

It was inaccurate to state that the performing arts programme had been banned in Denmark and Malaysia;
The claim that “not a single politician turned up” to the 2007 performance was inaccurate;
The reported comments on behalf of one local body politician had been reported inaccurately;
The overall tone of the article of 7 April 2008 was critical and negative so as to result in it lacking balance and being unfair; and
The newspaper failed to correct “errors” and failed to offer an apology in circumstances where New Tang believed it appropriate for the newspaper to do so.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor accepted that there were two inaccuracies in the 7 April 2008 article. It was incorrect to report no politicians had turned up the previous year and it was incorrect to report that the programme had been “banned” when it had only been cancelled.

Subsequent to the publication of the first article and prior to publication of the second article, the editor said the newspaper extended an invitation to New Tang to meet with the reporter so New Tang could have input into a proposed follow up article (which was the one published on 15 April 2008). This invitation was to enable New Tang to further address the concerns it has already raised with the newspaper.

The editor said New Tang did not avail itself of that opportunity but instead forwarded an open letter which was of such length and content as to make it unsuitable for publication. Additionally, the editor said there was a threat of legal action against the newspaper. In these circumstances the editor did not feel it was appropriate to continue to seek communication with New Tang.

Despite this background, the newspaper published the further article on 15 April 2008 in which it endeavoured to address New Tang’s concerns to the extent that these were accepted as valid by the editor. One specific matter remained unaddressed in the follow up article, namely, the alleged ‘misreporting’ of the comments on behalf of the North Shore mayor about which there remained a factual dispute as to what had been said.

The editor did not accept that the articles lacked fairness and/or balance either when viewed separately or when viewed collectively (and in light of the invitation extended to New Tang). He did not consider an apology was required. He said the (accepted) inaccuracies were corrected.

Given the acknowledgement by the newspaper of the inaccuracies in the earlier article, the Council has to consider whether the inaccuracies were such as to amount to breaches of Principle 1, and if they were (either separately or cumulatively), whether the subsequent article amounted to a sufficient publication to address these inaccuracies so as to rectify the initial breach/es. In considering that aspect, the Council takes account of the elapse of 8 days between the two publications.

The first article made some strong assertions regarding non attendance by various dignitaries and the reputed reasons for non attendance. It also reported strong statements made by a spokesman for New Tang that people were “…blindly bowing to the pressures of the ….Communist Party…”.

The second article referred to a Green Party MP who would be attending the performance and made specific reference to the fact he was attending so as to demonstrate his support for those afflicted by human rights violations in China.

The second article addressed New Tang’s expressed concerns and recorded that no private meetings were being held with VIPs, that a number of guests had already accepted their invitations, that the performance programme was not a Falun Gong event, and that the performance programme was not just a “concert”. This article also made it clear that the performance programme had not been banned in either Malaysia or Denmark.

New Tang presented a great deal of supplementary information to the Press Council about matters which are not directly germane to our determination. The Council is confined to adjudicating on ethical matters, namely, whether the newspaper has breached any of the principle/s contained in our Statement of Principles. We are not an arbiter of disputed facts and, where these remain, we cannot, and do not, proceed to make any determination upon them. Specifically here, we do not make any finding as to which of the versions regarding statements made for the North Shore mayor should be preferred.

Similarly, it is not for the Council to consider any wider questions surrounding the nature of the performance or the political context in which it might exist. To the extent that the material submitted relates to these questions, it is set to one side.

The Council finds the first article was inaccurate in its reporting that the performance had been banned in Denmark and Malaysia and that no politicians had turned up to the performance in 2007. The newspaper breached Principle 1 in these regards. However, it also finds that these inaccuracies were rectified in the subsequent article.

While the initial inaccuracies are regrettable, the Council is satisfied that the corrections by the newspaper are sufficient.

It also finds that the inaccuracies in the first article were not such as to make an apology appropriate given the corrections which had occurred. In reaching that conclusion the Council takes account of the somewhat hostile tenor to the communications between New Tang and the newspaper in the period between publication of the first and second articles. While there was some delay between the two articles, it is evident from papers submitted that the parties were involved in dialogue during that time and this was directed towards addressing the concerns raised. Accordingly, although there was a time delay prior to correction, the Council finds this was not unacceptable on the facts.

In relation to the claim by New Tang that the articles were unbalanced and unfair because of an alleged negative tone, the Council also does not uphold this complaint. It finds that each article separately satisfied the need for balance and was fair. The Council finds that view strengthened when considering the articles cumulatively.

The essence of freedom of the press demands that the press is free to report views which sometimes cause argument or even offence to those who hold contrary views. The Council is determined to uphold that right. It encourages New Zealand newspapers to continue to strive to present divergent views. It recognises that this sometimes results in residual and inevitable tensions.
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Lynn Scott and Alan Samson

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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