TONY AUCKRAM AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2948

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading

Overview

[1] Tony Auckram complains about an article: “National MPs’ full term abortion claims ‘silly’ – Andrew Little”, which waspublished by Radio New Zealand (RNZ) on 28 July 2020. His complaint falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 12: Corrections. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

[2] The article reported on comments made by the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, about comments made by two National Party Members that suggested “full-term” abortions were possible in New Zealand following recent amendments to the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977. In addition to noting the Minister’s view that such comments were “silly” the article noted that, among other things, the legislative amendments provided that the decision to have an abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation requires a number of criteria to be met, including that it has to be deemed necessary to save the woman’s life or prevent serious injury.

[3] However, this was incorrect and reflected the position under the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 prior to its amendment. The complainant drew this toRNZ’s attention and the article was amended to reflect the current law (as amended): that a woman who is more than 20 weeks’ pregnant can only have an abortion if a health practitioner reasonably believes that it is appropriate.

The Complaint

[4] Tony Auckram accepts that the article was corrected shortly after he contactedRNZ. However, he complains that the same article, which had been shared on theTVNZ website, was not corrected until after 2pm the following day. He queries whyRNZ did not have a process in place to update shared articles with TVNZ in a timely manner. He considers that a likely explanation is becauseRNZ did not accept that the inaccuracy was material to the thrust of the story or that it would have misled readers. In contrast, he considers that it was a material error that would have misled the public and thatRNZ’s efforts to mitigate their error were poorly done and insufficient. In addition to correcting the error (and ensuring it was corrected on theTVNZ website), Mr Auckram considers that RNZ ought to have drawn earlier readers’ attention to the mistake by printing a retraction or apology on the front page of their website.

The Response

[5] George Bignell, Complaints Coordinator for RNZ responded by noting that RNZ acknowledged the error, corrected it and annotated the story to indicate that it had been corrected. In doing so it included the original wording so that readers could see what had been changed. RNZ’s media partners (including TVNZ) were advised that a change was required.RNZ has no control over TVNZ’s editorial processes, but the story onTVNZ’s website was corrected within a number of hours the next day.

[6] Mr Bignell does not accept the complainant’s suggestion that the inaccuracy was material to the focus of the article. The article focused on the disagreement between some Labour and National Party MPs over whether there is such a thing as “full-term” abortion. However, the criteria listed in both the old and the amended legislation does not assist the reader in determining this. Both versions of the legislation allowed women to access abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation. In any event, as the error was acknowledged, a correction undertaken in a timely manner and clearly documented, all of the complainant’s concerns with the story were addressed.

The Decision

[7] In order to address Mr Auckram’s complaint it is necessary to frame it by reference to the relevant Media Council principles, the content of which guide us in determining if there has been any breach. The Media Council considers that two are relevant: Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 12: Corrections. For reasons that will become clear we consider these principles together.

[8] Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance states that:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Principle 12: Corrections states that:

A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.

[9] Mr Auckram’s complaint centres on his view that the error contained in the article was serious and ought to have been corrected in a more fulsome manner byRNZ and more quickly by TVNZ. Radio New Zealand appropriately acknowledged that there had been an error in this article and promptly corrected it. The Media Council considers that, while getting the law wrong was a significant error,RNZ’s actions were appropriate in these circumstances. The Media Council acceptsRNZ’s point that neither the incorrect summary of the old law, or reference to the correct provisions as amended, would assist the reader in determining whether a “full-term” abortion is possible in New Zealand. In either case, all that the provisions indicate is that an abortion is possible after 20 weeks’ gestation in some circumstances; it is only the circumstances under which an abortion is available that have changed. This is relevant to the topic of the article, but it is not material to it; rather the focus was on the dispute between the rival Members of Parliament.

[10] The Media Council accepts that RNZ informed its media partners (includingTVNZ) of the necessity of a correction and that RNZ has no control over the speed with which its partners make changes.TVNZ is not a party to this complaint, nonetheless, for the avoidance of doubt, the Media Council observes that the time by which the correction was made on theTVNZ website appears to be reasonable in the circumstances.

[11] Because the error was not material to the main thrust of the article, and because it was corrected promptly, on balance the Council concludes that upholding the complaint is not warranted.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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