SIMON TOWNSEND AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAYSimon Townsend complained initially of a breach of Principle 9 of the Press Council principles. Principle 9 prohibits the use of subterfuge unless there is an overriding public interest and the information cannot be obtained by any other means. He later extended his complaint to include breaches of Principles 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance), 2 (Privacy), 4 (Comment and fact), 6 (Headlines and captions), 8 (Confidentiality) and 12 (Corrections).
The complaint relates to an article published by the Herald on Sunday on 17 August 2014 and, as a complaint of a breach of Principle 9, was made before the article was published. The further complaint was lodged after publication
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
The complainant is associated with an organisation known as Avatar which, according to its website www.theavatarcourse.com, provides self-empowerment training. His precise involvement is unclear from the material provided to the Press Council, but clearly he assists in the organisation and promotion of Avatar courses in New Zealand.
On 7 August a reporter from the Herald on Sunday, using a pseudonym, enquired about attending an Avatar course and a few days later attended an introductory session. He later contacted the complainant and Shona Macdonald, the person responsible for Avatar in New Zealand (and Australia), explained that he was a reporter with the Herald on Sunday, and discussed the article he proposed to write. It appears that during the discussion he offered them the opportunity to put their views in a letter or short article.
The complainant and Ms Macdonald were concerned about both the proposed content of the article and the manner in which the information had been obtained. There followed some inconclusive email correspondence.
On August 17 a double-page article on Avatar was published in the Herald on Sunday. It was entitled “We’d like to welcome you to ‘enlightenment’” with the sub-title “Avatar claims its self-improvement course can fix life’s struggles but critics say the mumbo jumbo comes at a cost.” It consisted largely of a description of the reporter’s experience at the Avatar session, but also included some information about the origins and nature of Avatar, some comment from the complainant (presumably from the pre-publication discussion) and some comment from a lecturer in psychology at Otago University. Accompanying it was a picture of an unidentified young woman and a story relating the experience of an Auckland couple whose relative, they said, had undergone a significant personality change after attending an Avatar course and had incurred substantial debt in order to attend Avatar courses overseas.
The complainant’s first complaint is that the Herald on Sunday obtained information by subterfuge and that its actions fall outside the scope of Principle 9 which permits the use of subterfuge only when there is an overriding public interest and the information cannot be obtained by other means. He says that as there was no approach to Avatar for information, the reporter could not have established that the information could not be obtained direct from Avatar.
The second complaint is of breaches of a further six of the Press Council principles:
a. Accuracy, fairness and balance
In three separate emails the complainant lists 20 points under the heading “Itemisation of errors of fact”. Some of the points are directly about the accuracy of the content of the article but others relate more to the complainant’s perception of a lack of fairness or balance or to other principles. In general he is of the view that the inaccuracies reflect an unfair bias against Avatar.
b. Privacy, Comment and fact, Confidentiality
The complainant cites these principles but does not specify the way in which he believes they were breached.
c. Headlines and captions
The complainant says that the title is misleading and “. . is leading people’s attention in the direction of what the course is not rather than what it is.” The sub-title again directs attention away from the true nature of Avatar and is “ … part of the suggestive, manipulative, mind twisting spin of this type of media.”
The detail of this aspect of the complaint is not clear, but it seems to be directed at a perceived absence of any genuine opportunity to correct inaccuracies, both before and after publication, or to present Avatar’s viewpoint.
The Herald on Sunday response
The Herald on Sunday agrees that it obtained information by subterfuge. It was of the view that there was an overriding public interest, given that Avatar was running open programmes for members of the public at a cost of up to $3050, and given the serious allegations that had been made against the organisation. A direct approach would probably have resulted in “corporate” answers when the Herald on Sunday wanted a “genuine experience” to test some of the allegations that had been made. It notes that it contacted the complainant and Ms Macdonald before publication to advise what it had done and to give an opportunity for rebuttal.
The inaccuracies identified by the complainant were not of material significance. As to questions of balance and fairness, the Herald on Sunday solicited and published the complainant’s responses to criticisms levelled at the organisation. Further opportunities for comment and correction were given both before and after publication.
Although there is no detail to the complainant’s complaint about breaches of principles 2, 4 and 8, the Herald on Sunday commented generally on them. It said that:
a) Any right of privacy enjoyed by Avatar as an organisation was outweighed by the publication of significant matters of public record or public interest. There was no publication of personal information about identified individuals apart from brief background information.
b) A clear distinction was drawn between the factual elements of the article and elements of opinion and comment. The only personal bias was on the part of those whose positions were made clear in the article.
c) It has protected and will continue to protect the confidentiality of its three independent sources for the story. It took steps to satisfy itself that all three sources were reliable, but will not detail those steps as to do so would identify the sources.
The headlines, sub-headings and captions fairly and accurately convey the substance of the article and “this does not reflect bias but reflects the conflict within the article.”
There were no significant inaccuracies that required correction. Before publication the complainant and Ms Macdonald were asked to identify any incorrect information, but neither replied. Post-publication they were given further opportunities to comment or correct. Seven letters critical of the article were received from third parties and two of these were published.
There is no doubt that subterfuge was used to obtain much of the information used in the article, and given the serious nature of the allegations that had been made about Avatar, there is also no doubt that there was a sufficiently strong public interest to warrant the use of subterfuge. The only real question is whether the information could have been obtained by other means. The Press Council is satisfied that it could not have been obtained by a direct approach to the Avatar representatives and there is no other obvious means by which it could have been obtained. In order to test the allegations, the reporter needed to experience at least part of the Avatar process as an ordinary member of the public. If he had presented himself as a reporter, then consciously or unconsciously, the attitude of the Avatar representatives would have been affected.
Accuracy, fairness and balance
Some of the complainant’s 20 points are comments rather than complaints of inaccuracy, unfairness or imbalance, and some appear irrelevant to the complaint. For example, his point 13 reads as follows:
“Para 32 – re the cease and desist claim. See http://aboutharrypalmer.com/bio.html.” This sentence is followed by a quote from the web page about Harry Palmer’s background but there is no mention of the cease and desist claim or order. Similarly some of his concerns appear to be directed at critics of Avatar as quoted in the article rather than at the article itself.
Most of the inaccuracies identified by the complainant are minor in themselves and do not warrant correction. For example, he complains that his text to the reporter “Hi, Stuart, Simon here. What do you feel is your next step?” was misquoted as “What do you feel is your next step.” It is understood that to some extent he accepts that the inaccuracies are generally minor but remains concerned that there are underlying implications which reflect bias against Avatar and its representatives. This concern is discussed below.
There are two possible inaccuracies of slightly more substance. The first is the implication that Avatar is new to New Zealand when in fact it has been operating here for some years. The article does say “and now it’s in New Zealand” when referring to Avatar, with the implication that it is a new arrival. It also says “last week, Avatar brought the courses to New Zealand”. However the accompanying story is about a person who had clearly taken an Avatar course in New Zealand some time ago. In any event, there is no suggestion that the date of Avatar’s arrival in New Zealand is relevant to the criticisms of its operations. Similarly the complainant questions the phrase “Townsend, who said he was from a medical background.” The complainant explained that the reporter appeared to disbelieve him when he said he was not a psychologist, even though the reporter had accessed the complainant’s “Linked-in” profile which clearly lists the complainant’s qualifications as a qualified medical doctor. The complainant is of the view that the reporter’s description of his qualifications is calculated to shed doubt on his authority. However it is not actually inaccurate.
The complainant’s main concern appears to be that the cumulative effect of the inaccuracies and of other comments in the article is to create an unfavourable impression of Avatar and to bias the reader against it. There are four main elements in the article:
• Factual description, most of which is not in question such as the description of the origins of Avatar
• The reporter’s impressions of and reaction to his experience
• Criticisms of Avatar by third parties including the opinion of an academic psychologist
• The complainant’s response to some of the criticisms. This fulfils the requirement of Principle 1 that in matters of controversy or disagreement a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
There is a reasonable balance between the last two items, and it is noted that in addition there is a brief reference to both positive and negative perceptions of the founder of Avatar, Harry Palmer. Most of the factual description is unquestioned. There remains the reporter’s impressions and the minor inaccuracies. While the reporter makes it clear that he is unimpressed by his experience with Avatar’s introductory course and is sceptical about its benefits, he has also made it clear that this is his opinion and not objective fact. In this context, the minor inaccuracies do not carry the implications attributed to them by the complainant. There is neither unfairness nor imbalance.
Privacy, comment and fact, confidentiality
The complainant has given insufficient detail to form the basis of a complaint about the breach of any of these three principles, and there is no obvious breach to be found in the article.
Headlines and captions
Principle 6 requires that headlines, sub-headings and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. In complaining about the headline and sub-title to the article, the complainant is taking issue with some of the material that can be found in the article and is reflected in the headline and sub-heading. He is not saying that the headline and sub-heading do not convey the substance of the article. It is clear that they do convey that substance, and there is no breach of principle 6.
Principle 12 requires a publication to correct significant errors. There were no significant errors in the article in question. In addition, the complainant was offered several opportunities to correct errors or to express views contrary to those of the reporter both before and after publication. He has explained that he felt unable to take up those offers, but this does not negate the fact that they were they were made, and there is no reason to believe they were not made in good faith.
The complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.