RUSSELL ARMITAGE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2922

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Misleading

Overview

[1] The Weekend Herald published a story on May 232020 that carried the headlineMuller: Now I'll deal to Labour. The story said new National Party leader Todd Muller was "incredibly upbeat" about his chances and expected to be Prime Minister after the next election. It reported that Mr Muller would now take on the task of regaining the ground National had lost in the polls over the Covid-19 crisis.

[2] Todd Muller was reported as saying he would talk about "what's right for families, not what was wrong about the Government," but the article said he then went on to chronicle Labour's failings, saying they had failed to deliver on promises and did not have the capacity to handle the economic crisis that lay ahead. The article covered other aspects of the leadership change, including National's relationship with NZ First, and National's front bench line-up.

The Complaint

[3] Russell Armitage complained under Principle 6, which states: Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. Mr Armitage said the headlineMuller: Now I'll deal to Labour was misleading and did not give a true summary or reflect the tone of what was said.

[4] The headline was aggressive and designed to sow discord and division. The headline, written in the first person after Mr Muller’s name, was clearly meant to state that this is what Mr Muller had said, but he had not used those words, Mr Armitage said.

The Response

[5] The Herald responded that the headline did not suggest that these were the actual words of Todd Muller. It did not include quotation marks. However theHerald maintained that it was an accurate reflection of the content and context of the story. "Mr Muller had just staged a coup to take leadership of the National Party and immediately said he expected to be Prime Minister after the next election," theHerald said.

The Decision

[6] The Herald argued that the absence of quotation marks meant the headline did not suggest that “Now I’ll deal to Labour” were the actual words spoken by Mr Muller. However the Council believes the average reader would expect that a headline written in the first person would be at least an approximation or summary of what the person named in the headline said. For the sake of brevity it might be necessary to edit the person’s words to make them work as a heading, but it should be true to the substance and tone of the person’s words.

[7] The question then is whether “Now I’ll deal to Labour” was a fair approximation of what Mr Muller said. The story reported that he expected to be Prime Minister after the next election and that he chronicled Labour’s failings, which could be considered as “dealing to Labour” in a colloquial sense, but the Council noted that the statements attributed to Mr Muller in the story, where he acknowledged Labour’s “impressive” handling of the Covid crisis and said he would talk about "what's right for families, not what was wrong about the Government," had a different tone to the more confrontational words “deal to” used in the heading.

[8] While the impact of the words chosen for the headline would not have been particularly serious at a time of robust political debate, the Council believes the headline, written in the first person, should have fairly conveyed the tone and content of Mr Muller’s actual words and it did not. The complaint is upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Marie Shroff took no part in the consideration of this complaint. Hank Schouten stood down to maintain a public member majority.