I blogged back in April on a disgraceful front page story in the Waikato Times that published an allegation from Curwen Rolinson (NZ First Youth Leader) on Facebook that the Waikato Young Nationals had purchased 202 copies of Dirty Politics to do a Nazi style book burning.
As you can see the Waikato Times didn’t only make it their front page lead, they even commissioned a graphic of the book burning.
They were told the story was false. They decided to run it as a front page lead, and now the Press Council has slammed them for it in one of the harsher rulings I have seen.
The Press Council recognises that social media are a frequent source of information that can be checked and developed into stories capable of meeting the standards of accuracy, fairness and balance expected by readers of a reliable newspaper.
In this case the Council does not believe the newspaper had sufficient corroboration of the claim on Facebook. The Times’ additional source, a student who would not be named, claimed to have seen Mr Letcher with more than 200 books. If that statement were true, it does not establish that Mr Letcher intended to burn them.
The Facebook posting as reported by the Times, said, “So apparently the CNI Young Nats (and presumably the NZ Young Nats) are buying up copies of Nicky Hager’s # Dirty Politics….and burning them.” The word “apparently” should be noted. It suggests the information was at best hearsay, at worst an assumption by a person associated with a rival political party.
The Times called it “rumour” but its report also claimed to have confirmed part of the rumour. It is therefore difficult to accept the Regional Editor’s response that the paper was merely reporting an allegation. Its confidence in its own source and its decision to splash the book burning allegation across its front page would have given the story credibility in the minds of some readers.
While Mr Letcher’s denial was also reported prominently, this does not redeem the report. Newspapers need to be careful when dealing with rumour that is denied. A false accusation can easily be made for the purpose of forcing a political opponent to deny it publicly. That indeed is said to be a device of “dirty politics”. Newspapers should take care to ensure they are not unwitting instruments of it.
Basically the Press Council has said that the Waikato Times was part of Dirty Politics themselves. They smeared Aaron Letcher on the basis of a Facebook post by a political opponent and an anonymous source.
They refused to admit they did anything wrong:
The Times did not base stories solely on social media but those media often provided tips or starting points for stories. In this case the allegation on social media was supported by a source the Times considered credible and agreed not to name, which is standard practice for news organisations.
Their anonymous source lied to them, as there were not 202 books purchased or in Letcher’s possession. You only have to protect sources that tell you the truth.
The WaikatoTimes could not substantiate this rumour to a standard that meets the Press Council’s principles of accuracy and fairness. Mr Letcher’s complaint is upheld.
The Press Council has upheld, by a majority of 8:3, a complaint against the Waikato Times over a front page report of a claim that Young Nationals had bought hundreds of copies of the book Dirty Politics, intending to burn them.
What I find amazing is that it was only an 8:3 decision, not 11:0. I can’t think of a more clear cut example, especially when you consider how it was made a front page lead. Of interest the three who said it were fine are all members meant to be representing the public, while all the members representing newspapers, magazines and journalists condemned it.
I hope the Waikato Times runs the decision of the Press Council with the same prominence as they did the original story, and they finally apologise to Aaron Letcher for the outrageous smear they published as a front page lead, linking him to a purported Nazi style book burning.
UPDATE: The Waikato Times has not mentioned the ruling on their front page, but have it on an inside page. The front page is devoted to the worthy talents of Miss Whangamata.