The Press Council has not upheld a complaint from Wayne Church, President of the NZ Secular Society, about a feature article in the Farming section of The Dominion Post published on May 8, 2008.

The article in question was based on an interview with a young couple who had recently been awarded the title of Sharemilker of the Year for their region. Their farming practices, family, background, and hopes for the future were canvassed. They also openly acknowledged that their Christian beliefs were fundamental in their lives and influenced their approach to farming.

The Complaint
Mr Church complained first to the editor, then to the Press Council about the references to the couple’s religious beliefs and about the newspaper’s use of a capital letter for Him, in relation to the word ‘God’. He returned to the issues in a further letter to the Council addressing the arguments used by the editor in his response to the original complaint and also the handling of the complaint by the Press Council.

Mr Church noted that as a retired farmer he was keen to read farm-related features in the newspaper. In this case, however, he had been upset to find that the article became “slanted towards a heavily accented religious tract”. He argued that the article should have run without the religious references and questioned why the newspaper should have included them in an article on farming; the use of a capital H on Him, he maintained, belonged only in religious tracts and not a secular newspaper.

Mr Church complained under Principle 1 that readers were misled in that they did not expect a sharemilking article to include the “type of religious symbolism many readers would undoubtedly avoid, plaguelike, if given the chance”. He said The Dominion Post “readers were entitled to be able to delineate between what is religious and what isn’t, without the risk of cross-pollination, particularly since many readers (myself included) find such an intrusion significantly offensive”

Under principle 8 Mr Church complained that the article placed a gratuitous emphasis on religion on the basis that the concept was somehow intrinsic to sharemilking.

The Editor’s Response
The editor noted that the context was the award of the Sharemilker of the Year to a farming couple who have strong religious convictions. He thought the complainant should respect their views even if he did not agree with either the views or the newspaper’s treatment of them.

To suggest that the newspaper should not report on religion or individual’s religious conviction was absurd.

Tolerance, he said, is a fundamental tenet of a democracy.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act expressly provides (s 15) that every person has the right to “manifest their religion or belief in worship .... either in public or in private.” Clearly the couple in question was happy to express their beliefs to the reporter and would have known that this factor in their lives was likely in turn to figure in any subsequent article. The newspaper accordingly acted correctly in noting the importance of religion to them. The couple are entitled to their beliefs and entitled to express them in an interview with a reporter. The newspaper is entitled to report their views, provided it does so accurately, and there has been no complaint from the interviewees on that score.

The Press Council does not accept Mr Church’s argument that readers expecting a report devoted to farming would be misled by the religious references. The importance of religion in the couple’s lives comes in the second sentence of the report. If affronted the reader needed go no further. Mr Church contends that the Council should endorse the right not to be exposed to such beliefs. But this would clearly infringe the basic right of free expression.

The Council notes that the use of a capital H on Him in the context of this article was a matter of style to be determined by the newspaper and follows widely observed practice, not least in English literature.

Principle 8 is intended to provide protection for those who may be discriminated against. The complainant’s views, in this instance, are not in question. The issue is to do with the views, as reported, of the farming couple. Principle 8, therefore, does not apply.

The Press Council finds nothing inaccurate or misleading, in the sense of Principle 1, in way the newspaper reported the views of this couple. Equally, and for the reasons cited above, the Council does not find the article in breach of Principle 8.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Denis McLean.


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