SIMON BOYCE AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTIntroduction
Paraparaumu resident Simon Boyce complains that two articles published by The Dominion Post - ‘Traitor’ Sutch lied says former spy’s book and Kiwis ‘dug up dirt for Russia’ – are inaccurate and blur the boundaries between fact and comment. The spur for both articles was the recent publication of the book, Spy, by former Secret Intelligence Service officer Kit Bennetts. The first (30 September) article, written by Christchurch Press staff and syndicated to other newspapers in the Fairfax New Zealand group, is an account – through the eyes of Mr Bennetts - of the 1974 sequence of events that led to the arrest of top civil servant Bill Sutch on charges of spying. The second (October 2) article, an author interview also sourced from the Press, carries specific allegations that several high-profile Kiwis spied for the KGB. The complaint is not upheld.
Basis of Complaint
Mr Boyce says the main basis of his complaint is that the articles were part of a publicity deal done with Mr Bennetts’ publishers, “given the numerous advertisements seen in the newspaper over the last two weeks”.
According to Mr Boyce, the stories were not news “in the accepted sense”, rather unbalanced publicity items. He says they broke standards of accuracy, because they were one man’s views without independent verification; of prompt correction, because there had been no attempt to correct a mistake about the date of Sutch’s death; of comment and fact, because they attempted to present Mr Bennetts’ comments as fact; and of headlines, because they distorted truth.
To support his argument that Mr Bennetts’ views have no basis in fact, Mr Boyce cites historian Aaron Fox to assert the unlikeliness of a particular claim that Sutch had been a spy for three decades. A further claim that Sutch had collected details about public servants’ sexual and drinking habits for the KGB, was “a slander”.
Mr Boyce also complains that the articles were likely to be “personally offensive” to members of the Sutch family.
The Newspaper’s Response
In response, Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst says the articles were entirely based on Mr Bennetts’ tell-all book Spy, and did not pretend to be otherwise. He says it is a longstanding practice for newspapers to publish book extracts or interviews with authors about their books, and this example was no different.
The headlines were not distortions: they deliberately used inverted commas to signify quotes; the incorrect death date had been referred to the newspaper’s library to ensure such a mistake was not made in future; and, as a member of the SIS, Mr Bennetts had been entitled to make comment about the case and draw his own conclusions. “It was entirely proper to have reported Mr Bennetts’ comments, given he was involved in the case and gave a close-up view of what had happened.”
The practice of writing up the views of authors with inside or interesting knowledge is, as Mr Pankhurst says, a common newspaper practice. At the very least, the writings of Mr Bennetts put a new spin on a fascinating part of New Zealand’s history that has been before the public for decades. The first piece, ‘Traitor’ Sutch lied says former spy’s book, very clearly and appropriately sets out Mr Bennetts’ account: as a young SIS officer, he had been on the scene during some of the events leading to Sutch’s arrest. If this article had purported to be a researched analysis of the Sutch saga, it might have been open to criticism. It did not.
The second piece, Kiwis ‘dug up dirt for Russia’, highlights allegations about KGB data collection made by Mr Bennetts in an interview around the time of his book launch. Again, it is common newspaper practice to look for a new angle in a personal interview. That Bennetts’ claims cannot be substantiated at this time does not detract from the importance of an historical, personal account. It is reasonable for the newspaper to carry the clearly defined views of a former SIS participant in the saga.
Specific to Mr Boyce’s complaints, the paper’s accuracy in reporting the opinions of Mr Bennetts has not been questioned; the paper concedes inaccuracy on the issue of Sutch’s death date, but this is a minor error (the first article accurately reports that Sutch died months after the trial) and the newspaper has taken steps to prevent a subsequent error recurring); the articles clearly carry Mr Bennetts’ opinion, not obscured pretences at fact; and quote marks in the headlines make it clear the views are Mr Bennetts’.
The accuracy of Mr Bennetts’ information may be open to question, but it is nevertheless important material to be added to an historical mix that is still evolving. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.