PENELOPE BROWN and others AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3201
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022
Decision: Not Upheld
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Deception or Subterfuge
RULING BY THE NEW ZEALAND MEDIA COUNCIL ON THE COMPLAINTS OF PENELOPE BROWN, JAMES BURCHETT, AMY CAMPBELL, JARED CONNON, ALY COOK, AIDAN JUDD, PETE KIRKWOOD, AIMEE METCALF AND GRAEME TRASS AGAINST STUFF
1. The nine complainants complain about an opinion column by Virginia Fallon published by Stuff on November 21, 2021.Most of them complain
of a breach of Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 4 (comment and fact), 5 (columns, blogs, opinion and letters) and 7
(discrimination and diversity. Ms Brown also complains under Principle 12 (corrections), Ms Cook under Principle 9 (subterfuge) and Mr
Kirkwood under principles 6 (headlines and captions) and 10 (conflicts of interest).
2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaints.
3. On November 21, 2022, Stuff published a column by Virginia Fallon headed “The vaccine side-effect that’s destroying families”. The column appeared in the “Opinion” section of the publication and the first paragraph begins with the word Opinion in bold lettering.
4. In the column Ms Fallon expresses her view that people should use “every dirty emotional method under the sun”, including bribery, blackmail, trickery and shaming to persuade family members to be vaccinated against Covid-19. She says “when they finally succumb, they’ll hate you for it. But at least they’ll be alive to do it.”
5. She mentions “conspiracy about the vaccine’s side-effects” such as saying that it contains the tissue of aborted foetuses, that it is experimental or that it makes people magnetic.” In the final section of the column she says “Issue ultimatums, promise rewards or, if nagging fails, try begging. Resort to threats if you have to – “I’ll kill you if you die of Covid” – or suggest a bit of quid pro quo if they’ve been urging you to do something for ages.”
6. A common thread among the complaints is that the column lacks empathy and advocates behaviour that is at best bullying, harassment and abuse and at worst criminal. Several noted that blackmail is a criminal offence. Some are particularly concerned about the effect on the mental health of those who have chosen not to be vaccinated. Ms Campbell and Mr Kirkwood characterise the column as hate speech and Ms Campbell says “Threatening to kill is illegal”. Mr Kirkwood is concerned that there is no mention of the vaccine’s side effects. Some complainants also made the point that they did not take issue with Ms Fallon’s views but with the way they were expressed.
7. There are some specific complaints of inaccuracy, relevant to Principles 1, 4 and 5.
- Ms Brown says the column “perpetuates the ongoing myth that unvaccinated people will spread the virus, when in actual fact, all individuals vaxxed or not, can carry the same viral load and spread just the same.”
- Ms Cook complains that the column dismisses as conspiracy theories claims that the Covid-19 vaccine contains foetal cells and is experimental.
- Ms Metcalf complains that the phrase “at least they’d be alive”, in relation to people who have been vaccinated, is misleading when New Zealand has a very low death rate for Covid-19.
- Mr Trass also mentions Principles 4 and 5 but supplies no specific detail.
8. Most complainants consider there was a discriminatory element in Ms Fallon’s column. In some complaints, the discrimination is not specified, but it is clear that in most cases the complainants are thinking about the likely effect on those who are not vaccinated, either through choice or for other reasons, Ms Brown says the comments in the column “will potentially promote more division amongst our community through inciting more fear, hatred and intolerance of the unvaccinated individuals”. Mr Kirkwood sees the column as advocating discrimination against medical minorities.
9. Three complainants cite other Media Council principles. Ms Campbell mentions Principle 9 (subterfuge) and Ms Brown mentions Principle 12 (corrections) but in neither case is it clear from the correspondence how they consider these principles were breached. Mr Kirkwood complains that there is a conflict of interest (Principle 10) “where you have an author encouraging people to threaten, blackmail and abuse their family members, after that staff member in turn would be losing their job if they did not comply with Stuff’s vaccine mandate.” He also complains (Principle 6) that the headline to the column is misleading in its reference to vaccine side-effects as there is no mention of such effects in the column.
10. Geoff Collett, Stuff’s Editor in Chief Verticals, responded to the complaints. In some cases there was an earlier, individual response either from Mr Collett or from Grant Shimmin, News Director, Opinion, but Mr Collett’s response to the nine complaints considered here covers much the same ground as the initial responses and is more detailed.
11. Mr Collett begins by stating that the article is the honestly held opinion of the author, labelled as opinion, based on clearly stated facts and addressing a topic of the highest public interest. The author is entitled to hold her opinion and Stuff is entitled to publish it. As a regular columnist, she has developed a distinctive style, which is forthright and wry with an element of irony.
12. He also notes that the article is written in the context of family relationships and is not relevant to dealing with people outside the family. The reference to “bribe, blackmail, trick or shame” refers to dealing with family dynamics and “the unique emotional layer that applies to family relationships” and should not be interpreted as a call to criminal blackmail or corrupt activity. Similarly the use of irony and hyperbole conveys the frustration felt within families. It is ridiculous to interpret “I’ll kill you if you die of Covid “as a threat to kill.
13. As to the complaints of inaccuracy, Mr Collett responds “Setting aside the vast amount of coverage which has explored such matters, the writer has clearly chosen to accept that the vaccine is effective and the illness is lethal, and has expressed that in a clearly labelled opinion article. This is a reasonable position to take.” Two specific claims of factual inaccuracies are rebutted – there is substantial evidence that the vaccines do not contain foetal cells, and the claim that the vaccine is experimental appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the approval pathway used by Medsafe and the NZ government to ensure vaccines were available for general use as soon as possible.
14. Mr Collett also states that the headline to the article is sound, and that basis for the complaint about it is not understood. In relation to the complaint of conflict of interest, he stresses that journalistic independence and integrity is fundamental and requires that editorial staff are not swayed by their own beliefs or those of their owner. Also, the vaccine mandate applied by Stuff is a response to health and safety obligations, not an ideological statement.
15. The Media Council accepts that Ms Fallon’s article was an opinion piece, clearly labelled as such, and accordingly there is no
requirement for it to achieve fairness or balance. However Principle 4 requires that the material facts on which an opinion is based should
be accurate, and Principle 5 requires a foundation of fact for comment and opinion pieces. The complaints of inaccuracy are addressed in
paragraphs 18-20 below.
16. The main thrust of most of the complaints is that the column advocates behaviour that is at best undesirable and at worst criminal. The Media Council has considered these complaints against general ethical standards as there is no specific Principle that applies. Clearly it would be wrong in almost all circumstances for a publication to seriously encourage and advocate criminal or other seriously unethical behaviour. However the Council is not satisfied that Ms Fallon’s article does amount to serious advocacy of wrongful behaviour.
17. This is an opinion piece, clearly and strongly expressing the opinion that people should do everything in their power to ensure that family members are vaccinated to protect themselves against Covid-19 (or at least reduce the risk of serious illness or death). Ms Fallon has chosen to use exaggerated language along with sardonic irony to convey her message, and this is neither unusual nor unacceptable. In this context, references to blackmail or the passage “I’ll kill you if you die of Covid” should be seen for what they are – extravagant language usedto emphasise a legitimate argument. In addition, the word “blackmail" has wider connotations than the criminal offence – it is not unusual, for example, to speak of “emotional blackmail”. The Council does not consider the style adopted by Ms Fallon amounts to grounds for upholding the complaints.
18. There is no requirement that such pieces be inoffensive, and indeed opinion pieces on controversial topics are often offensive to some readers. To the extent that the complainants found Ms Fallon’s column offensive, there is no basis on which to uphold the complaints.
19. In the view of the Media Council the complaints of inaccuracy are unfounded. This is not a technical article where a high degree of precision is warranted. It is a piece of general advocacy. In addition, most of the complainants do not really question the accuracy of the facts on which Ms Fallon’s remarks are based, but rather the inferences to be drawn from those facts. For example, it is an undoubted fact that people die from Covid, even if the New Zealand death rate is low by international standards. There is also strong evidence that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of death. Clearly Ms Fallon believes that the risk is not worth taking, and that is a legitimate inference to draw from the evidence, even though others may draw other inferences.
20. Ms Brown says the column perpetuates a myth that unvaccinated people will spread the virus more than the vaccinated do. However, the only mention of unvaccinated people spreading the virus is not Ms Fallon’s opinion but a quote from Professor Paul Spoonley talking about the type of emotional appeal that could be made in support of vaccination. It is not a discussion of the relative viral loads of vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
21. Ms Cook complains that the column dismisses as conspiracy theories claims that the Covid-19 vaccine contains foetal cells and is
experimental. There is substantial evidence that while foetal material was used in the research that led to the mRNA vaccines, there is no
such material in the vaccines themselves. Equally, the mRNA technology that was used to develop the vaccines is by no means experimental.
The vaccines were indeed developed speedily, but there is strong evidence that they have been through all the testing and regulatory
processes that are required before they could be made widely available. The fact that there are continuing studies of the Covid virus
and of the vaccines and their effects does not mean that the vaccines are experimental.
22. Mr Kirkwood complains that the headline to the column is misleading in its reference to vaccine side-effects as there is no mention of such effects in the column. He appears to be mistaken as there is not only a reference to claimed side-effects in the fifth paragraph of the column, but in the following paragraph, Ms Fallon specifically describes the effect on family relationships as the vaccine’s “most perfidious side-effect” .
Discrimination and diversity
23. A number of the complainants consider the column amounts to discrimination against those described by one complainant as a medical minority. However, the Media Council’s discrimination and diversity principle acknowledges that issues relating to minority groups are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest. In the context of an ongoing pandemic, there is no doubt that discussion of, and the expression of opinions on, the desirability of vaccination is a matter of strong public interest.
24. The complaints of subterfuge and about corrections appear to be based on a misunderstanding of the Media Council principles. The subterfuge principle relates to information or news obtained by subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonest means. There is no evidence of any such activity in this case. Similarly, the corrections principle refers to the correction of errors, and there are no discernible errors in the column.
Conflict of interest
25. The Council is satisfied that there is no conflict of interest in this case. Freedom of expression is a fundamental journalistic principle, and the Council is aware that Stuff and other reputable media outlets in New Zealand consistently publish a wide range of views on topics of interest. In this case it is very clear that Ms Fallon is expressing her own views and there is no evidence of any sort of editorial interference.
26. The complaints are not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaints were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.