TED DAWE AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY
1) The complainant, Ted Dawe, is the author of a novel “Into The River”. The novel is aimed at young teens, and subsequent to the article complained of has been classified as “Unrestricted” by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. That body recommends it as suitable for mature audiences of 16 years and older. The novel claimed the top prize in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book awards.
2) The novel contains obscene language and graphic descriptions of sexual activity and drug taking. As a result concerns were expressed by at least one book seller and other citizens. Given the content a degree of controversy was not surprising. As a result of the concerns expressed the Herald on Sunday published an article about the novel in its edition of June 30, 2013. The article did not purport to review the book but was focussed on concerns some people had expressed about the content of the novel, the graphic sex scenes in particular. It is acknowledged by the complainant that while he took issue with the headline the article was fair and balanced and presented both sides of the issue.
3) In his complaint Mr Dawe first complained of a breach of copyright. We have no jurisdiction to consider this complaint.
4) His other complaints reveal a shifting of grounds. Initially he complained that the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; children and young persons; and headlines and captions had all been breached. However, in his final communication with the Press Council it had reduced to alleged breaches of the first two principles just mentioned.
5) The article in the Herald on Sunday included a QR code. This allowed readers with smart phone technology to access three particular passages, all with sexually explicit content. (The article earlier noted that the newspaper would not publish such extracts as they could offend some readers). There is a warning of the sexually explicit content next to the QR code.
6) The complaint maintains that by the code accessing the sexually explicit passages readers would have the whole of the novel misrepresented. Worse, stated the complainant, initially the passages were run together so it appears it was one long sexually explicit passage. This was subsequently changed in the on line edition so it was clear they were 3 separate passages.
The Newspaper’s Response
7) The Herald on Sunday accepted the QR link should have made it clear there were three separate excerpts. This had not been initially raised with the newspaper by the complainant but when it was the online edition was changed.
8) The editor also said that the excerpts were major examples of the issues many people had with the book and the QR link allowed readers to make up their own minds. I.e. would the reader be comfortable allowing their children to read the novel.
9) In relation to principle 3 the editor pointed out the book was available for purchase by anyone, regardless of age. Further the publishers had placed an arbitrary 13+ on the book and some booksellers had changed that to 15 because of the content. The editor also stated the excerpts were only available to those with the requisite technology and the link stimulated the debate.
10) Finally the editor stated the headline was accurate.
11) We do not consider that the Herald on Sunday breached the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance. This was not a review of the book as we have already noted. Rather it was an article that highlighted concerns expressed by some people about certain passages and themes in the novel. Fairly, the article reports opposing views. All the QR code does is to enable readers to access passages that are the subject of the widely differing views expressed in the article and allows them to form their own views. That opinion varied is clearly evidenced in material subsequent to the article made available to the Council.
12) When principle 3 dealing with children and young people is read it is clearly dealing with a situation far removed from the present complaint. It states there needs to be exceptional public interest to override the child or young person’s interests. It is aimed at protecting an individual or small group in much the same way as reporting restrictions for complainants in sexual cases before the courts. Here it appears the complainant seems to be alleging that the QR code makes the “dirty bits” (his words) more accessible to young people. There is a certain irony in that. In any event the book was, and is, available for sale on an unrestricted basis. There is no breach of this principle by the Herald on Sunday.
13) Finally, even if the complainant had maintained his claim of breach of principle 5 we would not have upheld it. The simple fact is that the headline is accurate and fairly conveys key elements of the article.
14) It was unfortunate that the newspaper did not initially indicate the excerpts were three separate passages, however the Council doubts that such clarification would have altered the thinking of either the pro or anti lobbies. As soon as the issue was raised with the editor the online copy was amended, and the Council finds this to be a reasonable response.
15) The complaint alleging breaches of principles 1, 3 and 5 is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.