Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The Spinoff: Offensive and Inaccurate? When proof of accuracy isn't enough to prove accuracy

The Press Council has released a decision on Hayden Donnell’s article on The Spinoff about racism on Radio Sport. As part of that article, Donnell embedded a tweet of his in which he asserted that sports commentator Miles Davis, “must have set a record for 'public homophobia without getting fired'.”

Davis complained about this, saying it was wrong and offensive in the articles assertion that he was homophobic.

The Press Council upheld his complaint.

The Press Council does not actually say which of its principles the article breached. This would have been helpful. First, the Press Council Principles, unlike the standards issued by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, don’t actually include a rule against being offensive. Second, the basis for the finding is not that Mr Davis was not homophobic, but that the “article did not include any evidence of Davis being homophobic”. It is not immediately apparent which principle requires an article to contain evidence for factual claims, as against merely having factual claims, but there seems to be one.

During the complaints process, The Spinoff relied on both the evidence it had included in the article, and also a range of other material it said showed what it had written was true. Davis disputed that the examples included in the article supported a claim of homophobia, and also said that nor did the additional examples provided subsequent to publication.

The Press Council agreed with the first part: the particular examples used in the article did not prove homophobia, but it disagreed with the second part. It would not have found that The Spinoff’s article was inaccurate and offensive had those other examples been used in the article.

This is just weird. The Press Council have said that for a claim to be accurate, it must not only be accurate, and provably so, it must be both accurate and supported by evidence that is included in the article itself. I find myself wondering what other true claims carried in news media will now be inaccurate and offensive because, while being true, and while the person making the claim has evidence they are true, not all of that evidence is included in the article itself.

How do you prove that John Key is the Prime Minister? I’m not sure, but the Press Council may well consider it inaccurate (and offensive!) to say so in an article without offering proof.

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