RUSSELL ARMITAGE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3098

Council Meeting: SPTEMBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists Opinion
Headlines and Captions
Misleading
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Politicians

Overview

[1] Two complaints were made about the headline of an opinion piece published on 17 July 2021 in theNew Zealand Herald, which read: “Claire Trevett: Dismiss protesting farmers as rednecks at your peril, Prime Minister.”

[2] The complainants were made under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 6: Headlines and captions and Principle 9: Subterfuge. The complaints are not upheld.

Background

[3] The opinion piece said the rules sheet issued by the organisers of the Howl of a Protest showed farmers had learned from their errors. “We want to be the sensible persuaders, not a bunch of rednecks,” the sheet said. A valuable lesson had been learned from the 2017 farmers’ protests, some of which focused on personal attacks rather than the message, Trevett said, adding: “It would pay for the Government to discern between those elements and the concerns of the persuaders rather than dismiss the whole shebang as misguided or a protest over one single issue.” The protest was the rural sector making it clear they felt besieged by the pace and scale of Government reforms. The risk of pursuing large-scale reforms at pace was decreasing the chance of Labour winning another term as a one-party government, the article warned.


The Complaint

[4] Russell Armitage and Alana Bowman both complained separately about the article’s headline, and as their complaints covered the same ground they will be dealt with together. Mr Armitage complained under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 6: Headlines and captions and Principle 9: Subterfuge. Ms Bowman complained under Principles 1 and 6.

[5] The headline suggested that the Prime Minister had called farmers or some elements of the farmers’ lobby group rednecks, the complainants said. She had not. Most people just glanced at headlines and did not read further and would be left with the impression that she had used the word “rednecks”. The headline was mischievous and misleading, Mr Armitage added.

The Response

[6] The New Zealand Herald replied that the use of the term “rednecks” was derived from the rules sheet used by the protesters. It reflected the theme that farmers had learned from past errors. The article and headline did not state that the Prime Minister had referred to farmers as “rednecks” but presented a warning to the Prime Minister that they should not be dismissed as such. The use of the words “at your peril” indicated that it was a warning. The use of the writer’s name followed by a colon clearly showed that what followed was her opinion.

[7] On July 29, the Herald also published a letter from Mr Armitage expressing his concern about the headline.

The Decision

[8] Principle 9 concerns the use of subterfuge in news gathering so it is not relevant to this complaint. The matter is best considered under Principle 6: Headlines and captions, 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.

[9] The headline clearly set out that this was an opinion piece and the phrase “Dismiss protesting farmers as rednecks at your peril, Prime Minister”would likely be understood by readers to be a warning to the Prime Minister that farmers had legitimate concerns that should not be dismissed.

[10] The complaint centres upon whether most readers would think the Prime Minister had used the word “rednecks” when referring to farmers. It was undoubtedly intended to be attention grabbing. While some readers might think at a glance that she had used this term, many would not have made that assumption. After reading even the first few paragraphs, many readers would understand that the Prime Minister was being warned not to dismiss farmers as rednecks, rather than being taken to task for using the term.

[11] The Council has dealt with a similar complaint from Mr Armitage in July 2020. In that case the headline “Muller: Now I’ll deal to Labour” had been written in the first person and was attributed to the person quoted. The complaint was upheld, as the Council said that “Now I’ll deal to Labour” should have been a fair reflection of the tone and content of the actual words spoken and it was not. The circumstances of the current complaint are somewhat different. The phrase “Dismiss protesting farmers as rednecks at your peril, Prime Minister” was attributed to the journalist, not the Prime Minister. However, we consider most readers would see it as a warning in the journalist’s words, rather than something the Prime Minister had said.

[12] Although headlines need to accurately reflect the story, and this one was slightly ambiguous, as shown by the two complaints received, headline writers cannot be expected to anticipate every possible misunderstanding. The publication of Mr Armitage’s letter would have helped clear up any possible confusion.

The complaints were not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Liz Brown took no part in the consideration of this complaint. Jonathan MacKenzie stood down to maintain the public member majority,

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