Case Number: 2462

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2015

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions


Tom Hunsdale’s complaint concerns the headline to an article published in the New Zealand Herald on September 2, 2015 which related to the issue of a potential new flag for New Zealand.The headline, which read “Revealed: Plots to gerrymander flag referendum” is said to be misleading, incorrect, with the potential to influence the outcome of a democratic process because the whole tone portrays opponents of the flag change as underhand and/or evil.

The Complaint

The Complainant’s Position

The complainant considers the headline has a sinister connotation.He submits the dictionary definition defines ‘plot’ as “a secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially a hostile, unlawful or evil purpose.”He also states that the use of the prefix ‘revealed’ implies that the author has got information that was somehow being kept hidden or secret.He considers this to be totally misleading.

He considers that politicians and others saying they are going to vote for the worst option, to derail the process, is neither secretive, evil, illegal nor harmful. He said this is simply a campaign, which is no different from those supporting change. In a further complaint, he objects to the use of the word ‘gerrymander’ in the title.

The Response

The New Zealand Herald’s response

The editor responded to the complainant and accepted that, strictly speaking, there was nothing secret to be revealed.He went on to say that ‘plots’ could also have been called ‘ploys’.He said, adopting the definition of the complainant, supporters of a particular flag would probably consider it harmful if opponents were urged to vote for their least preferred option in the hope of retaining the current national flag, which would face a weaker contender in the run-off.He pointed out that the chairman of the Flag Consideration Panel called such an approach “unpalatable and unattractive”.He rejected the complaint, and he offered the complainant the opportunity to submit a letter to the editor for possible publication, which was refused.

The Discussion


Principle 9 of the Press Council principles reads:

9. Headlines and Captions

Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

The question of flag change and its cost is a subject that has generated significant public debate.We consider nothing wrong in the use of the term ‘revealed’, as the article clearly reveals for the first time to the general public, many of whom would be unaware, the intentions of others to vote strategically at the referendum.Nor do we consider there is any issue with the use of the term ‘gerrymander’, which was a term used in the article by the Flag Consideration Panel Chairman, Prof John Burrows QC who stated:

I hope there won't be much gerrymandering because I think people have got to see what an important occasion this is.

He went on to say:

It's the one chance people have in their lifetimes to do it. So to actually waste a vote for political or other reasons I think will appear to most people as unpalatable and unattractive.

While we accept the dictionary definition of ‘plot’ put forward by the complainant, we consider in contemporary colloquial usage it has a wider meaning.It seems to us the word is often used in colloquial usage to mean a group of people agreeing a course of action for a pre-determined outcome.(A simple example will suffice.If it was reported, “the All Black coaches plot a strategy to beat Australia”, no reasonable reader would imply this was “hostile, unlawful or evil”.)In this case a number of people spoken to indicated that they would vote for the weakest of the four candidates at the referendum, which means, quite clearly, that if they were successful, what they perceived to be the weakest candidate could well go forward to compete in the second referendum against our current national flag.This is a plot, but it does not carry with it the pejorative terminology that the complainant applies.

In those circumstances, we do not consider the use of the word to carry the meaning attributed to it by the complainant.

We are also satisfied that the definition relied on by the complainant does not go as far as he suggests, as can be seen by the wording “especially a hostile, unlawful or evil purpose”.This shows the last three terms do not always apply.

In our view, it is overwhelmingly clear that the headline in this instance accurately and fairly conveys the substance of the story and key elements of it.There is no breach of the principle.The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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