The Press Council has partly upheld a complaint from La Leche League that the New Zealand Herald inaccurately reported its position in the removal of a clip showing All Black Piri Weepu bottle-feeding his daughter in a Smokefree Homes advertisement.
The issue attracted a high level of media coverage. Between February 5 and February 19, 23 articles or items were published, 13 in the New Zealand Herald.
The Press Council noted most of the articles were opinion pieces and sat well within the limits of freedom of expression. La Leche League had also noted this in relation to some of the columns.
The full decision, including those parts of the complaint that were not upheld, is at presscouncil.org.nz.
The complaint followed a move by the Health Sponsorship Council to send to the La Leche League the advertisement commissioned by the HSC before it aired. La Leche recommended to the HSC that the small bottle-feeding clip be removed so as not to cut across the work of the Ministry of Health's national breastfeeding education campaign. The League did not mention Piri Weepu or comment on his fathering skills.
The Press Council accepted the editor's view that it was reasonable to suggest that the League had led the campaign to have the clip removed. It also noted that while some criticism was clearly harsh, other pieces were moderate and even, at times, supportive of La Leche. Moreover, there is no need for a balanced view in opinion pieces (and that was recognised by the League in its complaint).
Of concern though was the statement in the Herald's editorial, "La Leche and Plunket have apologised for impugning Weepu's fathering abilities". The Council notes that the newspaper is now willing to make a correction, but the claim as published was a serious one, it did cast a slur on La Leche, and the Council finds no evidence that the League called Weepu's role as a dad into question.
Likewise the comment "in judging a young, popular Maori man" the same point arises. The League had not "judged" Weepu.
The headline to the editorial also seems overly emotive. It leads "Breast only' fanatics ..." which might lead some readers to surmise that the League argues that all babies must be breast fed. That would misrepresent La Leche. Moreover, in this case La Leche was simply advising HSC that images of bottle feeding strongly negate messages promoting breast feeding, work the Ministry of Health was promoting. Their concern was restricted to the mixed messages being sent.
The Council does not believe that the use of the word censorship is warranted. The League made a suggestion, the HSC considered the suggestion and willingly removed the image from its own advertisement. This is not censorship.
The complaint about a Your Views column captioned "La Leche's complaint led to Weepu's tender moment being cut" is not as serious yet the Council can understand the complainant's concern. First, it was not just the League's complaint that led to Piri Weepu's "tender moment being cut", rather it was the result of many voices from several organisations putting pressure on HSC.
And further, the cheek-to-cheek photograph of Weepu and baby daughter that accompanied the column and was also used to illustrate an opinion piece, may perhaps have led some readers to assume that this was indeed the kind of image that La Leche wanted to cut from the ad. That this was not the image at the centre of the controversy should have been made clear to readers.
The complainant noted: "Criticising us for the position that bottle-feeding imagery should not feature in publicly funded health messages is fair game" and this perhaps recognises that the League's position would always seem an extreme one to the public - especially when the clip in question was a mere 2 seconds of a much longer ad. That the criticism would be vehement when the clip showed a loving moment between a popular All Black and his baby is also completely unsurprising.
However, the complaint argues that while such comment is fair game, "Putting words in our mouth - criticising us for things we did not say or believe - is not."
It did seem to the Council that at times the La Leche League was being pilloried for things they did not say or believe.
Because of the inaccuracies noted above, the complaint was partly upheld, on the grounds of inaccuracies that led to unfairness.