PAUL VERCOE AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 2993
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2021
Verdict: Not Upheld
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
1. Paul Vercoe complained about an editorial and associated articles which were published in theMarlborough Express on Monday 30 November 2020.He claimed that the editorial and related statements apologising for racial coverage of Māori in past years was unbalanced and unfair.The complaint is not upheld.
2. On 30 November 2020, the Marlborough Express published an editorial which included a front page titled, “We are sorry” in both Te Reo Māori and English. The editorial was repeated widely in various other Stuff publications. The essence of the editorial was that Stuff was sorry for its racist and unfair coverage of Māori news over its 163-year history. In particular, the silencing of local Māori issues and the prioritisation of the Pākehā world view was acknowledged. The editorial was comprised of a series of pieces concerning Stuff’s history of biased reporting.
3. Mr Vercoe complained that the statements included in the editorial were themselves unfair and unbalanced. In essence, he is relying on a breach of Principle 1 of the Media Council principles.
4. Mr Vercoe complained in particular that the statements contained in the editorial were unfair to the memory of his father, Selwyn Vercoe. In particular, he referred to the statements, “The organisation’s reporting of Māori issues has seldom been fair or balanced”, and “Māori voices have continually been silenced in the Express”. Selwyn Vercoe was a distinguished editor of the Marlborough Express for many years. He was a person prominent in his community and worked to support and foster the speaking of Te Reo Māori, and to promote Māori culture. Effectively, Mr Vercoe complained that the article and associated statements besmirched his father’s memory most unfairly, given his laudable career and qualities.
5. The editorial referred to a number of examples of past racist reporting as part of the apology process. In his complaint, Mr Vercoe took issue with the interpretation of these examples, and considered them to exhibit a racist attitude and to portray the journalists of the time as racist. Going into some detail, Mr Vercoe refuted interpretations of the facts put forward by the newspaper in the editorial.
6. Mr Vercoe also objected to the setting up of a Māori reporting section, Pou Tiaki.He noted that the appointment of “a new parliamentary press gallery reporter who is fluent in te reo Māori focused on politics from a Māori perspective” is “surely cause for the Media Council to intervene and censure Stuff.” “With such a focus how can the public believe that what is being reported is fair and balanced.” He went so far as to refer to various alleged Māori atrocities in Māori history as a basis for criticising the apology series and as contributing to the editorial’s lack of balance.
7. Mr Vercoe has asked for an apology from the newspaper, and for the Media Council to intervene and censure the newspaper.
8. In the material he has sent us, Mr Vercoe has referred to the non-publication of an advertisement in two Northland papers. The Media Council does not have jurisdiction to consider matters relating to advertisements, and so will not consider that issue.
9. Stuff denied the allegation of unfair and unbalanced reporting. The editor, Ian Allen, and editorial director, Mark Stevens, have corresponded with Mr Vercoe and invited him to meet with the editor to express his thoughts, which he did. There was a cordial exchange.
10. Stuff believed that Mr Vercoe is focusing on one personal touchpoint, being the memory of his father, and not the entirety of the project’s scope. It was pointed out that the apology editorial is supported by Stuff’s editorial staff, both Pākehā and Māori. The reporting was independent with more than 20 journalists involved across the country. It was said that what was described in the article as perhaps the “greatest failure” of theExpress, being its coverage of the Waitangi Tribunal hearings in early 2000, concerned events when Selwyn Vercoe was not editor.
11. It was pointed out that opinion pieces such as editorials do not have to be balanced, and that when all the reporting on the topic is considered, there is fairness and balance. It is asserted that Stuff Pou Tiaki is inclusive and is designed to give a Māori perspective in a publication that desires to reflect diversity.
12. The editorial and associated reporting about the historical coverage of Māori issues by Stuff was essentially an opinion piece. It was designed to set out a perspective on the attitudes of past years which, in the light of today’s knowledge and beliefs, on reflection was wrong and unfair. The editorial seeks to vilify no person. Although not expressed to highlight this, it draws attention to how far the nation has come and changed in its understanding and appreciation of Māori and their treatment following colonisation.
13. As such, we can see no basis for complaint that the editorial is unbalanced. It is not saying that all reporting was racist. Its object is to provide balance in rectifying the journalistic wrongs of the past by acknowledging the Māori perspective. In doing so, it is inevitable that some readers will consider that it has gone too far or find the views expressed in the article to be unacceptable. That is often the reaction to opinion pieces. However, it is not necessary to put opposing points of view in opinion pieces.
14. Some of the matters that were discussed in the supporting published material dealt with historical events, including what actually happened and how those events were reported by the newspaper. These were events that promoted emotional reactions and took place many years ago. As is always the case with such historical events, there will be different interpretations of what happened and, on occasion, disputes as to the core facts. We are not satisfied that any of the historical accounts complained of by Mr Vercoe amounted to factual errors. Further, the apology was more focused on the effect of reporting fairly matters concerning Māori, rather than setting out different factual perspectives on particular events.
15. The references by Mr Vercoe to alleged Māori atrocities in Māori history adds no weight to his complaint. Plainly, a past alleged wrong between Māori people does not in any way justify general unfair reporting about Māori on unrelated issues. Similarly, his complaint about the appointment of a Māori person to focus on politics from a Māori perspective seems to come from a mindset that is the very subject of the apology editorial series. The allegation of reverse racism is groundless. In any event, we record that the Media Council has no role in monitoring journalistic appointments.
16. It is true that the past reporting referred to in the Stuff apology series was of another time when there were different values and understandings, and the newspaper’s apology comes from a later time. We take note of Mr Vercoe’s comments on this point, that it is difficult to apply a “different environment of social norms” from history, to today’s climate. However, we see this as an obvious point implicit in Stuff’s apology editorial series. The series does not seek to vilify individuals or imply they were bad people. It is a statement made by the journalists of today, which shows how far the nation has come.
17. We record that Mr Vercoe’s father, Mr Selwyn Vercoe, appears to have been an excellent member of his community, and may well have been ahead of his time in journalistic attitudes towards local Māori issues. However, given that he was not mentioned in the editorial, and it was not suggested by Stuff that the apology covered each and every article published by every journalist, his achievements are not the issue.
18. We conclude that the Media Council principles have not been breached.
19. The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.