Hard News by Russell Brown


Complaint and culture

By the time Donna Chisholm had finished writing North and South's August cover story, A Failure to Deliver, about the state of New Zealand maternity care, she and her editor Virginia Larson probably knew that it was going to be controversial.

They do not, however, seem to have anticipated quite the counterblast it earned. Larson responds in this month's extended editorial not only to criticism from the College of Midwives, but to the furious reaction on various Facebook and in blogs. 

She declares herself  "disheartened by the lack of critical thinking displayed by many of those on Facebook and in the blogosphere," and disappointed that many of the story's critics did not seem to have read the story itself:

That's disappointing, as reading Donna Chisholm's 5500 words might have dispelled the Facebook furies' belief the story was fuelled by malice and an anti-midwife agenda.

Larson does also concede that, given a do-over, she "might have reconsidered the cover design" -- a Getty stock photo of the classic, inappropriate baby-being-dangled-by-ankles image -- and the cover line itself ('MIDWIVES: bungled deliveries and the myth of "natural" childbirth').

She's right to do so -- neither do Chisholm's work any favours -- but it still seemed a bit over the top for the new Children's Commissioner, Russell Wills, to lay a complaint with the Press Council slating the cover as "degrading and exploitative".

Dr Wills did, presumably, read the story, which, like pretty much everything Chisholm writes, is coherent and detailed. If nothing else, the takeaway from it is this:

Q: What are the outcomes of the changes to maternity care in the 1990s, allowing midwives to act as independent lead carers, for mothers and babies?

A: We have no idea. We don't track those outcomes.

I mean, really? Records are kept of deaths at birth, but we have no picture of harm to either mothers or babies.

I think College of Midwives CEO Karen Guililand would have been better advised joining Chisholm and the magazine in a call for decent monitoring of perinatal outcomes than angrily telling the writer she was "sick of" the debate, which was all "from the same establishment system -- I do think it's gender."

But this is by its nature an emotional discussion, because for those of us with children it springs from the most emotionally intense experiences of our lives. We had our first son in a hospital in London -- fortunately, as it happens, because he rotated late and things got dicey for a while. The nurses were kind, the (female) doctor was rude and arrogant. A male doctor later informed us that Jim's cerebral haematoma "could have caused his demise," making it sound like we were somehow personally remiss.

Our second was a home birth in Grey Lynn, with a midwife whose psychological skills I came to admire. To but it bluntly, she knew when to be a little bit of a bully. And she also rapidly resolved the heart-stopping moment when Leo came out purple, with the cord around his neck. A quick bit of suction and he "pinked up" and I could breathe again. Neither of us mentioned that to Fiona until later.

And , yet, I know people who had horrible experiences with midwives.

I think the magazine has responded well to the firestorm: Larson's long editorial addresses it directly, and nearly the whole letters section is devoted equally to praise and criticism of Chisholm's feature. I hope the Press Council responds with similar measure to Wills' complaint.

I'll be talking to Larson and Chisholm on this week's Media7.

UPDATE: Virginia Larson has kindly allowed me to post PDFs of the controversial cover and the A Failure to Deliver story itself.


Then -- staying with the theme of complaint -- Sarah Daniell is putting together a report on the fortunes of Don McDonald, who was controversially fined by the Broadcasting Standards Authority for making an official complaint about some scientific innumeracy in a One News story.

Brian Edwards was outraged, and so was I -- but I also have sympathy with the regulator and the broadcaster. Not so long ago, 300 BSA complaints in a year was a big one for TVNZ. Now, the complaints come in the thousands, and many of them come from pedants and eccentrics like McDonald (note: those words are not meant to be pejorative, but accurate and descriptive).

It's crazy that the only setting for the handling of broadcasting standards complaints is full noise -- there are no minor complaints, everything must be given the same weight. Surely, there should be scope for broadcasters to respond appropriately themselves -- and make the correction -- without everything becoming a full standards complaint, only to be dismissed as "not material".

If broadcasters want self-regulation, it is within their power to practise it. If they make a silly factual error, the right response is to engage and correct the error. It's no longer good enough to say "who knew?" They might even take a leaf from the Washington Post and engage their critics as fact-checkers. Because, you know, pedants have their uses.

I'll be speaking to BSA CEO Dominic Sheehan and Science Media Centre chief Peter Griffin about that issue.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ from 5.15pm but no later than 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me an email to say you're coming.

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