Case Number: 3510

Council Meeting: April 2024

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Spinoff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Discrimination and Diversity

Ruling Categories: Politics


  1. On 24 November 2024, The Spinoff published a story headlined Why government ministers’ presence at a Hindu nationalist rally is causing concern.  Vishal Patil complains the article breaches Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle (4) Comment and Fact, Principle (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, and Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity.  The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

  1. The Spinoff describes the article as ‘an explainer’ and it is laid out as a series of questions and answers. The article covers the attendance of two NZ Government Ministers, Melissa Lee and David Seymour, at an Auckland event to mark the opening of a major Hindu temple called Ram Mandir, in the north India city of Ayodhaya. 
  2. The article backgrounds the history to the controversial temple and the relationship between the Indian government and Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva. It says Hindutva has been used to attack and disenfranchise India’s Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, low caste, tribal people and migrants. The temple’s opening is seen by many as “a marker of the Indian government’s pro-Hindu, anti-minority agenda”.
  3. The article says Hindu nationalism and the opening of this temple  are “hugely politically loaded in India”. The article quotes a New Zealand commentator, Professor Muhan Dutta as saying that while the attendance of ministers Lee and Seymour seems ‘innocuous’,  it implies a lack of understanding and the potential alienation of many of their NZ constituents, who are not supportive of Hindutva.
  4. Professor Dutta, a professor of communication at Massey University, says it is “more than just another community event” with NZ politicians engaging with the right wing Hindutva movement at a time when charged Indian politics are having an impact around the world.  
  5. The article reports that in an interview Ms Lee congratulated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said “he does very well for the people of India”.  David Seymour in an Instagram post said the opening of the temple aligned with Act Party’s values of “fairness, inclusivity and accountability”.  According to The Spinoff both NZ politicians were interviewed by ANI, an Indian news agency that has been accused of being a Hindu nationalist Indian government propaganda tool.
  6. It says both ministers have supported Hindutva in the past including advocating for the widespread release of The Kashmir Files, a film which details “Hindu oppression in the disputed Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir”. Given there are more than 100,000 Hindus in New Zealand The Spinoff says attending the event is a way to secure votes from Hindutva-aligned Indians who might be supportive of National and Act in government.  Ms Lee said as a Minister she attended to support New Zealand’s ethnic communities.
  7. Professor Dutta who has studied the Hindu right-wing movement in New Zealand is reported saying there is also resistance to Hindutva narratives in the Indian community and asks “which part of the Indian diaspora community” was Minister Lee “engaging with”.  He  says many in the diasporic Indian population are concerned and “this celebration sends the message that since the Christchurch terror attacks, things haven’t changed.”
  8. Professor Dutta says with India’s election coming up there will be Hindutva activity around the world.  He hopes the  diverse members of the Indian community will be heard.

The Complaint

  1. Vishal Patil’s complains the article was initiated on the pretext  of causing religious discord, is biased, unbalanced and creates a dangerous and unsafe environment for people of Hindu religion in New Zealand. He says people of Hindu religion have been attached in the United Kingdom and Canada.
  2. Mr Patil says rather than the Auckland event being a “Hindu nationalist rally”  it was a “Hindu religious celebration”.
  3. He asked if the article was sponsored, suggested a new headline is needed and questions the credentials of Professor Dutta.

The Response

  1. The Spinoff stands by the article saying it was well researched, thoroughly checked and edited.
  2. The Spinoff says the issues raised by Mr Patil were answered in the story. It notes there was no concern raised by Mr Patil about balance between pro and anti-Indian government feelings in the story.
  3. The Spinoff says the description of the Eden Park event as a “rally” is shorthand used in the headline and standfirst of the article to convey that the event has political implications.
  4. The Spinoff says the focus was on the two New Zealand Government Ministers and how their actions may have been perceived by some in and out of the local Hindu community and that mention of Indian Prime Minister Modi and his policies was included for context and linked to original reporting of events.  The Spinoff says the article is intended to explain to an unfamiliar reader why this event could be considered controversial, and give both the ministers and people with concerns, as represented by Professor Dutta, the ability to have their views represented.
  5. The publisher says there was a focus on the policies and actions that have caused some New Zealanders to be concerned about Ministers Lee and Seymour attending this event, and including a supporter of the Modi government would have shifted the focus of the story from being local to one of global politics.
  6. According to The Spinoff the story was widely read, an indication of audience interest and only one other complaint was received alongside appreciative messages from readers who had been confused after seeing comments related to the event on Melissa Lee and David Seymour’s social media accounts.

The Discussion

  1. Mr Patil’s complains The Spinoff failed to meet the following Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (4) Comment and Fact, (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, and (7) Discrimination and Diversity.
  2. The Media Council notes the story was presented as a series of questions and answers as a way to explain a newsworthy event, where readers may not fully understand the background.  Explainers are widely used across media outlets, for complex and ongoing issues. The idea was to inform the reader about a controversial and important topic.  It was not an opinion piece presenting  one particular opinion and Principle (5) does not apply.  When Professor Dutta is quoted, it is clearly his opinion that is being set out.
  3. Principle (1) 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. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.” 
  4. The Spinoff reported the event attended by Ministers Lee and Seymour and quoted their reasons for being there. The story was a combination of factual reporting and the quoting of comments, in particular those of Professor Mohan Dutta.  He is essentially criticising the attendance of the Ministers at the opening, but previously the Ministers have been quoted explaining why they attended.  This is all plain to a reader.
  5. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is controversial in India and worldwide, with detractors and supporters.  The party’s goals and actions provoke widely different reactions.  The opening of the Ram Mandir temple gave rise to strong clashing views in India and worldwide.  The purpose of the article was, as is stated in the headline, to explain that controversy.  The articles, through question and answers, does that.  In doing so it refers to and quotes critics of Mr Modi’s policies.  It is true that Professor Dutta’s views are from one side of the controversy, but that is clear from the report.  Mr Modi’s view of the temple opening is quoted.
  6. It has not been shown in the complaint that in setting out the reasons why Ministers Lee and Seymour were attending the event and quoting critics of their attendance that the story was inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced.  The article quotes the opinions of Professor Dutta, who plainly is approaching the issue from a particular point of view, as well as setting out opposite views.   There are no demonstrably inaccurate statements of fact.
  7. It may have been better that in addition to comments from the politicians in support of their attendance that the views of a supporter of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi policies were included. Nevertheless, because his policies generally are part of a long-running issue, and this is a report of criticisms of the NZ ministers attending the opening, the need for balance was diminished.  The reader will see that the ministers were plainly cultivating Mr Modi’s goodwill which they thought worthwhile and we are satisfied the Principle (1) has not been breached. Questioning Ministers Seymour and Lee about their attendance at the event provided some balancing comment to the opinions of those who were uneasy about it.  The Council felt matters of fact and comment were distinguished within the story.
  8. Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity states “Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.”
  9. While this story covered issues of religion and religious differences and minority groups in India, it did not do so in a discriminatory way. The differences of views are newsworthy. The presenting of controversial views that may offend some portions of the community and be applauded by others, is what balanced reporting is all about.  This was essentially a news story structured as an explainer of why some people are critical of the NZ politicians actions.  It included explanations from the politicians about why they attended the event, contrasted with material from a critical academic. The story provides the uninformed reader with a different view about the actions of the politicians.
  10. Decision: The complaint is not upheld under Principles (1), (4), (5) and (7).

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough Tim Watkin, Katrina Bennett, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.


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