ZOE DRYDEN AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAYZoe Dryden complains of breaches of Principles 1 and 4 of the Press Council principles. Principle 1 requires accuracy, fairness and balance in publications as well as a fair voice for the opposition view in articles of disagreement or controversy. Principle 4 requires a clear distinction between factual information and comment or opinion. Material facts on which opinion is based should be accurate.
The complaint relates to an article published by the Herald on Sunday on August 17, 2014,
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
On August 17, 2014, the Herald on Sunday published an article on an organisation named Avatar which runs self-improvement courses. It was entitled “We’d like to welcome you to ‘enlightenment’” with the sub-title “Avatar claims its self-improvement course can fix life’s struggles but critics say the mumbo jumbo comes at a cost.” It consisted largely of a description of the reporter’s experience at an Avatar introductory session, but also included some information about the origins and nature of Avatar, a reference to websites concerned with cults, some comment from a representative of Avatar and some comment from a lecturer in psychology at Otago University. Accompanying it was a picture of an unidentified young woman and a story relating the experience of an Auckland couple whose relative, they said, had undergone a significant personality change after attending an Avatar course and had incurred substantial debt in order to attend Avatar courses overseas.
The complainant is not specific about her involvement with Avatar, but says that she is involved and that she has participated in Avatar courses. She has clearly discussed the issues in her complaint with representatives of Avatar.
The first complaint is that the article contains inaccuracies, specifically in implying that Avatar is new to New Zealand when it has been running here for years, and in alleging that Avatar is trying to penetrate companies when the courses are aimed at individuals and the complainant has known it to decline corporate uptake.
She also complains of imbalance and unfairness in the use of the “Cultwatch” (or “Cult List”) website as a reference without disclosing that it is a Christian-based website, in presenting material from a psychologist who views those involved in personal development courses as lonely and vulnerable, and in writing the article from the single viewpoint of an unnamed person who may not agree with the viewpoint described. She objects to the implication that Avatar requires large sums of money from its adherents, saying that while attending overseas courses can be expensive, her own experience is that she spent more for less value on academic studies in New Zealand.
At a later stage she added a complaint that not all the serious allegations about Avatar were put to its representatives for comment, nor were the psychologist’s criticisms, and that generally a fair voice was not given to the opposition view.
The Herald on Sunday response
The Herald on Sunday says that the article did not say that Avatar was new to New Zealand. The reference to “now in New Zealand” was in relation to the course then running in Auckland.
It was correct to say that NZ Cult list warned that Avatar was keen for large companies to adopt its methods. The claim was put to Avatar organisers who responded in the article and have later said that the programme is tailored for individuals rather than companies. The Herald on Sunday accepts this, but does not believe it to be of material significance.
The Christian leanings of Cultwatch and NZ Cult List were not considered relevant. The independent psychologist gave his honest opinion and his criticisms were put to Avatar organisers for a response. The Herald on Sunday also says that “serious allegations were put to the organisers of Avatar who were quoted from one interview. They were given opportunity for two other phone interviews and invited to write a piece for publication to run with the article.”
The article was not written from a single viewpoint but drew on one overseas and three New Zealand sources. A reporter experienced the introduction for himself and others were contacted for their viewpoints.
Criticisms were put to the organisers of Avatar, though not necessarily with the identity of those making the criticisms.
Ms Dryden complains of two specific inaccuracies. The first is the implication that Avatar is new to New Zealand when in fact it has been operating here for some years. The article does say “and now it’s in New Zealand” when referring to Avatar, with the implication that it is a new arrival. It also says “last week, Avatar brought the courses to New Zealand”. However the accompanying story is about a person who had clearly taken an Avatar course in New Zealand some time ago. In any event, there is no suggestion that the date of Avatar’s arrival in New Zealand is relevant to the criticisms of its operations. It is not clear that there was an inaccuracy, and if there was, it was not of any material significance.
The second inaccuracy relates to the statement that Avatar is keen for large Kiwi companies to adopt its training methods. This is not a statement made by the author of the article but an accurate report of material on the NZ Cult List website. The Avatar organisers say, and it seems the Herald on Sunday accepts, that the programmes are in fact designed for individuals only. Once again, given that the focus of the article was on the nature and effect of the Avatar courses, it is difficult to see the relevance of this inaccuracy, and it does not appear to be of any material significance.
The NZ Cult List website describes itself as Christian-based, and does not confine its listings to cults in the normally accepted sense of the term. It includes a number of institutions, individuals and practices, such as forms of alternative medicine, and accords most of them ratings from a particular Christian point of view (it says the Roman Catholic Church has several doctrinal problems, and rates “Atheism” as “Danger”, for example). Neither the NZ Cult list nor the Cultwatch website is a neutral source of information or opinion, but the Herald on Sunday does not claim that they are such a source. It merely reports (accurately) that they warn against Avatar. In the same way, it reports the views of an independent psychologist, who has reservations about Avatar’s techniques. It is not unfair to present views contrary to those of an organisation that is the subject of a newspaper article, provided the subject is given a reasonable opportunity to answer them.
The article was not presented from the single viewpoint of an unnamed individual. In fact it did not mention her viewpoint at all although it covered the views of her family. It also reported the views of its own reporter, of a psychologist, of the two websites and to some extent, the Avatar representatives.
The organisers of the Avatar courses were given some opportunity to respond to the article, both before and after publication, and three paragraphs of the article consist of the response of one of them. Before publication they complained that some information was incorrect but did not respond to a request to identify the incorrect information. After publication they were again offered an opportunity to comment, but declined to take the opportunity.
After having read the Herald on Sunday response to her complaint, the complainant appears to have consulted the Avatar organisers involved in the article about the extent to which they were given a right of reply to the allegations in it. They advised her that there was one interview prior to publication, and that the psychologist’s opinion was not put to them for a response, nor were all the allegations that were made in the article. In view of their experience with its staff, they chose not to accept the Herald on Sunday’s offer of a further interview or interviews or of writing a short item or letter putting their viewpoint.
It is not at all clear precisely what information was disclosed to the Avatar organisers for comment pre-publication. The complainant says that specifically the psychologist’s opinion was not put to them and nor was the claim that Avatar was targeting large corporations. The Herald on Sunday says that all serious allegations were put to them, including the psychologist’s opinion, although the psychologist was not identified at that stage. There is also a lack of clarity about precisely what offer was made to the organisers of Avatar both pre- and post-publication. It has variously been described as an offer of an interview or interviews, of a letter for publication, of a short (200 word) article, or simply as “having their say”. This was poor practice on the part of the Herald on Sunday and exacerbated the existing suspicion and mistrust on the part of the Avatar representatives so that they eventually declined all further offers. Even so, the offers were made, and it was open to the Avatar representatives to correct any information they considered to be incorrect or misleading.
The complainant has complained of a breach of Principle 4, but she has not said that there has been a failure to distinguish between fact and opinion. To the extent that her complaint is about the accuracy of the article, the issues have been covered in considering Principle 1.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.