ROBERT BOARDMAN AGAINST ROTORUA DAILY POST
- Bob Boardman complains about a series of items published by the Rotorua Daily Post between 20 March and 12 April 2019.He considers the items breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance), 4 (Comment and fact), 5 (columns, blogs, opinions and letters and 7 (Discrimination and diversity) of the Media Council principles.
- The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.
- In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings, the Rotorua Daily Post published a number of cartoons and articles commenting and reporting on the links between New Zealand’s gun control legislation and the shootings and on proposals both for fast-tracked amending legislation and for further legislation in due course.The complaint is about seven cartoons (six by “Emmerson” and one by “Body”), one news report and seven opinion pieces, and indirectly about a letter to the editor published on 30 March 2019.
- Mr Boardman expressed his views on the gun control issue in two letters to the editor, dated 4 and 10 April, questioning the need for fast-tracked legislation and supplying data in support of his arguments. Neither letter was published, but a further letter, dated 12 April, was published.
- During the correspondence over the complaint, the Rotorua Daily Post provided a further article dated March 26 and headed “Gun owner says ban unfair”.
- Mr Boardman complains that the items collectively amount to a propaganda campaign that includes hate speech and is directed against himself and other members of the New Zealand gun community who oppose the fast-tracked nature of the changes. He submits that while he is not complaining about the Rotorua Daily Post’s right to adopt a forthright stance or to advocate in support of changes in gun legislation, he is of the view that the series of items lacks balance in that it does not include material giving arguments against the fast-tracked legislation or the robust data supporting such arguments, including that supplied with his two letters to the editor.
- In addition, referring to Principles 4 and 5, Mr Boardman says there was a failure to distinguish opinion from facts. He refers specifically to the statements that gun ownership is a privilege, not a right and that the cost of the buyback will be “up to a couple of hundred million bucks”. He also lists ten facts that he believes to be relevant to any fair public debate on the issues and that were not mentioned in the articles.
- Mr Boardman summarises the first part of his complaint by saying “I think that when the Rotorua Daily Post published 16 items in a month advocating a political cause, without giving a fair voice to the opposition view or supporting opinion with robust facts, they are not informing but rather manipulating the public. In the process they are undermining the ability to have a civil contest of worldviews, values and ideas, and democracy is not served.”
- Under Principle 7. Mr Boardman complains that the items, and particularly the cartoons and the symbolism they employ, amount to hate speech and discrimination against a minority group (gun owners), which he describes as a political minority, and are designed to incite hostility against them.
- In responding to the NZME submissions (see below) Mr Boardman largely repeated his earlier points. He expressed concern about the suggestion that balance was provided by articles not published in the Rotorua Daily Post, about “opinion bombing”, described as a barrage of mostly opinion pieces lacking accurate facts necessary for readers to make informed judgements, and about what he considered as misrepresentation of his arguments.
- Mr Boardman said he had missed seeing the article of 26 March, but did not believe it altered the overall weight of his complaint.
Rotorua Daily Post Response
- The Rotorua Daily Post’s initial response was a short letter from its editor, Scott Inglis.He agreed to correct a minor inaccuracy in the headline of one of the articles, but otherwise rejected Mr Boardman’s arguments.
- A more extensive response was later written by Ashleigh Harding, legal counsel for NZME, the owner of the Rotorua Daily Post and other publications.
The main points of the response were :
- The opinion pieces supplemented a significant amount of news coverage of the Christchurch attacks
- In the circumstances, balance should be assessed over a number of pieces, not on any one individual article
- The Rotorua Daily Post and other NZME newspapers reported on those who supported the proposed legislation, those who did not support it and those who were concerned about the speed at which it was passed. Two articles from the Rotorua Daily Post (26 March and 13 April) were cited, along with eight from other NZME publications.
- Those opposing the speed of the legislative process are not a “minority group” for the purposes of Principle 4. The term “gun lobby” is used as a “catch-all” for those seeking to influence law and policy on gun control and is not discriminatory or negative. The 13 April article describes them as “law abiding licensed gun owners who present no risk to others”.
- Specific points from Mr Boardman’s complaint letter were also addressed.
Principle 1- Accuracy, fairness and balance
- Principle 1 requires publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting. In this case, Mr Boardman’s main concern is with what he sees as a lack of balance over a series of articles and cartoons, with undue emphasis placed on the arguments for immediate legislation to ban military-style semi-automatic firearms (and possible further legislative restrictions on gun ownership) and little or no mention of counter-arguments..
- In response, NZME listed a number of published articles that cover the arguments against the fast-tracked gun control legislation, but with two exceptions these articles were not published in the Rotorua Daily Post. NZME may own a number of publications, but each is a separate entity with its own readership and its own editor. The complaint is directed against the Rotorua Daily Post and in considering the question of balance, the Media Council will normally take into account only items published in the publication against which the complaint is directed.It sees no reason to depart from this practice in this case.
- Principle 1 also requires that in articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. There is an exception for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion or where balance is to be judged on a number of stories rather than a single report. In this case the second exception does not apply as the complaint is about a number of stories or articles. It is noted that while balance is not essential for a comment or opinion piece (Principle 5), there should be a reasonable degree of balance when there is a series of comment or opinion pieces on the same topic.
- The appropriate content of gun control legislation is a long-running issue in New Zealand, and if that was the only issue to be taken into account, there would be no question of imbalance. However the environment has changed with the tragic events in Christchurch and the legislative reaction to them. While Mr Boardman appears also to have concerns about reporting and opinion on the content of proposed legislation, his main concern as expressed in his letters to the editor and in this complaint, is the speed at which legislative change is taking place and what he sees as the consequent inadequacy of provision for public consultation and for public input into the new law. This is not a long-running issue, and the complaint needs to be determined on the recently published material.
- The first item and the only news report in question does not cover this issue at all, and was written before the legislative programme had been announced. The remaining items other than the cartoons range quite widely in their content. The earliest one (20 March) supports a ban on military-style semi-automatics but makes a case for permitting other semi-automatics especially as used by farmers. Later items generally support a ban on semi-automatics and some go further to support other restrictions. The article of 30 March is not really about gun control at all – it is about overseas comment on events in New Zealand and New Zealanders’ reaction to the comment, followed by some material on the politics of gun control legislation. Importantly, the article of 6 April, which is focussed on David Seymour, describes his concerns about the precedent and timing of the legislative process and states that they are valid.
- Most important, however, is the article of March 26. It is unfortunate that Mr Boardman missed this article as it voices many of the concerns that he expresses.
- In general, the Media Council concludes that the articles focus mainly on the mainstream view that the events in Christchurch warrant both immediate and longer term action to reduce the likelihood of any recurrence, but that balance is maintained by publishing the March 26 article, by acknowledging that there are differing views and in particular by recognising as a valid concern the view that fast-tracked legislation is contrary to the public interest.
Principles 4 and 5 – opinion, comment and letters to the editor
- The relevant parts of Principles 4 and 5 require a clear distinction between opinion or comment and fact, clear identification of opinion, and accuracy in the factual basis for an opinion. Principle 5 also covers letters to the editor and states that they are covered by editorial prerogative, to be guided by fairness, balance and the public interest.
- Cartoons are by their nature comment or opinion and require no further identification.Four of the opinion items are either individually labelled as such or appear on a page headed “Opinion”. This leaves the items of 20, 23 and 30 March. None of the three are labelled as opinion or comment, and somewhat confusingly, the items of 23 and 30 March appear next to a column that is headed “Comment”. It would be better practice to head the entire page “comment” or “opinion”, but even so, it is very clear from the style and language of all three items that they are not entirely news reporting but include commentary on news.
- It is not a requirement of Principle 4 that all opinions be supported by robust facts, but rather that when opinion is expressed to be based on facts, those facts should be accurate. Mr Boardman in general complains about the omission of facts that he considers relevant to the debate rather than about factual inaccuracies. He cites two inaccuracies – the statement that it is a privilege and not a right to own guns, and the statement that the cost of buying back guns is likely to be “up to a couple of hundred million bucks.” The former is not inaccurate – in New Zealand (as opposed to the USA) there is no right to own guns. The second may be inaccurate as there have been several estimates of the cost of the buyback scheme and most of them are in excess of $2 million. In the context, however, it is clear that the figure is not meant to be a factual basis for opinion but rather an indication of a reasonably substantial sum at a time when the likely cost of the buyback was a matter for conjecture.
- Mr Boardman also complains of the refusal to publish either of his two letters to the editor. The Media Council notes that a letter of April 12 was published, but it was on a different topic and was irrelevant. It is well established that editors have a right to accept or reject letters as they see fit, subject only to considerations of fairness, balance and the public interest.If there had been a stream of published letters supporting the proposed legislation, there would have been some force to Mr Boardman’s complaint that balancing correspondence should have been published, but Mr Boardman cited only a single letter. In the circumstances, the editor had the right to reject Mr Boardman’s letters.
Principle 7 - Discrimination and diversity.
- Mr Boardman effectively complains of breaches of the Bill of Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against ethnic, religious and other minorities. The remit of the Media Council is somewhat narrower.Principle 7 recognises that that there can be a legitimate public interest in the discussion of issues of gender, religion, minority groups and other categories. Publication in the public interest is therefore permitted so long as there is no gratuitous emphasis on the category in question. There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the 15 March shootings there was a very substantial public interest in identifying anything that could have led to the gunman’s actions and anything that could have prevented them.
- It is doubtful whether gun owners amount to the sort of minority group intended to be covered by Principle 7, but in any event it is difficult to read the articles as either targeting or demonising gun owners, or placing gratuitous emphasis on gun owners.In a discussion of gun control legislation there will inevitably be mention of gun owners, but in the articles that are the subject of this complaint, there is very little mention of gun owners or of a New Zealand gun lobby, as opposed the USA gun lobby (which is a legitimate point of reference), and the consistent approach of the articles is not denigrating gun owners but supporting the proposed restrictions on gun ownership.
- Cartoons are recognised as satire and in that context are given considerable latitude. There is no clear legal definition of hate speech, but a cartoon will not usually be considered in breach of Principle 7 unless it contains material that at least approximates the popular conception of hate speech. The cartoons in this case do not generally target gun owners or the gun lobby, with the exception of the Emmerson cartoon of 6 April, which is aimed at a specific advocate, and the Body cartoon of 8 April. In particular, the 20 March Emmerson depiction of a jigsaw puzzle includes a number of diverse elements, of which gun laws and gun sales are only two. Other elements represent abhorrent organisations or concepts but also mainstream social media. In this context, the Media Council is unable to find gratuitous emphasis on gun owners. The two cartoons that can be seen to target the gun lobby are comparatively mild expressions of the cartoonists’ opinions, with a tendency to ridicule rather than hate.
- The complaints are not upheld. However, it is suggested that the Rotorua Daily Post review the layout of its opinion and comment pages to ensure more effective identification of opinion and comment pieces.
Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.