The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the Credo Society that the New Zealand Herald had acted wrongly in not publishing a letter from the Society which contested figures on child abuse that had appeared in a Herald book review by Wendy Blaxland. The Press Council held that while there were features of the complaint that told in favour of publication, these did not outweigh the editor's right to determine the contents of his newspaper's letters column.

In the opening paragraph of her review Wendy Blaxland wrote: "If we accept the evidence estimating that one in four girls and one in eight boys are sexually abused as children, we must admit abuse is a significant problem."

On February 18, Mrs Barbara Faithfull, secretary of the Credo Society, wrote to the Herald saying that Wendy Blaxland was using figures about abuse that had been publicly discredited in 1988 and asking whether a new round of mythmaking was about to start. In a subsequent letter she asked why her protest had not been published and, in other documentation, developed the argument that public concern was being deliberately fomented by the feminist movement on the basis of exaggerated statistics.

On March 1,the deputy editor of the Herald replied that the book review was by someone not on the Herald's staff and that the statistic had been quoted as a supposition rather than as a fact. He said that it was not clear whether the reviewer actually accepted the statement and suggested that Mrs Faithfull might write and ask her.

This drew a lengthy rejoinder from Mrs Faithfull in which she contended that responsibility for publishing the review lay with the newspaper and recalled that in 1988 when she had contested the same statistic, the Herald had published her letter. She asked why she should now be refused the opportunity to challenge the figures again.

On March 30, the deputy editor replied that the Herald did not propose to publish her earlier letter nor to respond to what he characterised as a diatribe. There was, he said, no obligation on the paper to correct an ambiguous (and even silly) statement by an outside reviewer.

In the light of this reply, Mrs Faithfull complained to the Press Council. She recalled that the Credo Society had a long-standing concern over deceptive figures relating to child abuse and over their use in ideologically driven causes. In now refusing to print Credo's challenge to the figures, the Herald was making itself party to the process of misleading the public.

In response the Herald reiterated that the statement to which Mrs Faithfull objected was an expression of opinion by an outside contributor in a book review. Mrs Faithfull, the deputy editor said, seemed to believe she had an absolute right to express a contrary point of view through the Herald's letters column. There was no such right and the selection of letters lay at the editor's discretion.

During the Press Council's discussions, it was felt that the balance between the opposing arguments was finely drawn and it was suggested that, given the anxieties and sensitivities aroused by the controversy in 1988 over the "one in four" estimate, the Herald could well have acted wisely in publishing Mrs Faithfull's original letter. The Council did not feel, however, that these considerations outweighed the editor's right to determine the contents of his newspaper's letters column and, on that ground, the Council did not uphold the complaint.

Mr Peter Scherer, editor of the Herald and who is a member of the Press Council was not present at the meeting when the complaint was considered.


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