AUNTY RO MUDYIN GODWIN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2738

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact
Discrimination

Overview

[1] Aunty Ro Mudyin Godwin is Vice President of Australia’s Kangaroos, a group formed to speak for “this iconic, unique and majestic animal”. She has complained about a column by Christopher Cookson, published on Stuff on November 8, 2018.

[2] The column appeared in Stuff’s Business section, but was a contribution by a reader to Stuff Nation and labelled as a “reader report”.

[3] Stuff Nation gives website readers the chance to write for the website if they have “a story to tell or an opinion to share”. Stuff Nation stories most often appear in a distinct section but some are farmed out to other sections and appear with a Stuff Nation logo and labelling.

[4] The column recounts a reader’s recent holiday in Australia and his discovery of kangaroo meat. He argues that as the meat was cheap, tasty and 98% fat-free and kangaroos produce next to no methane and require less water than cattle, New Zealand farmers could try farming them. At one point in the original article Cookson writes, “Aboriginal Australians have been eating kangaroos for thousands of years, so if that’s not sustainable, I’m not sure what is”.

The Complaint

[5] In a strongly worded complaint and a series of emails to Stuff, Godwin describes Cookson’s piece as a “disgraceful article” that is “offensive”, “arrogant”, “drivel” and relies on “ignorant generalisations”.

[6] As an indigenous Australian, Godwin says kangaroo are “sacred totem animals” and the article has “caused much anger and distress within local indigenous communities”. The killing of kangaroo is destroying dreaming and song lines, so precious to Aboriginal peoples.

[7] Godwin complains the article is also “devoid of even basic facts” and the “journalist” does not provide evidence for his claims. She says kangaroo are not hunted or eaten by indigenous Australians who hold kangaroo sacred and so the article indulges in generalisations. It is impossible to farm them due to their slow reproduction rates, the parasites they carry and their tendency to suffer from capture myopathy, where the stress of capture can damage their muscles and even kill them.

[8] The complainant provides a wide range of criticisms of the kangaroo meat industry and also is offended by the replies from Stuff’s Deputy Editor, Keith Lynch. She accuses Stuff and him of racism.

[9] She says, “the first rule of journalism is to provide factual unbiased information” and “the second rule is to ensure no offence is caused”. She asks for edits be made or the inaccurate references to indigenous people to be removed.

[10] Godwin does not specify which principle under which she would like us to consider her complaint, but as the column is an opinion piece it is best handled underPrinciple 4, Comment and Fact.

The Response

[11] Keith Lynch replied, explaining the column was personal opinion and asking if Godwin would like to write a piece in reply.

[12] In further emails, he quotes from an article supplied by the complainant that acknowledges “Aboriginal Australians have been eating kangaroos for thousands of years” and says the issue of kangaroo meat is widely discussed in the media. In each email he offers Godwin the chance to write a piece explaining her point of view.

[13] To the Media Council, Lynch writes, “Christopher Cookson’s contribution is not a news story from a professional journalist. Labelled clearly as a reader report, it is a view from a Stuff user - akin to a longer, more developed reader comment. The writing style and branding conveys that it is a comment or opinion piece.”

[14] He says that Cookson is right to say kangaroo produce less methane and require less water than farm animals, while his only reference to indigenous Australians is when he writes they have been eating kangaroo for thousands of years. “This is demonstrably correct”, he says.

[15] Lynch points out that after several emails he did relent on one point, so that the line referencing Aboriginals now reads, “Some Aboriginal Australians have been eating kangaroos for thousands of years, so if that’s not sustainable, I’m not sure what is”.

The Decision

[16] What makes this article unusual is that it concerns a user-generated article. Unlike most columns we consider, this piece was not written by a professional journalist or expert commentator. That is not to say that the standards it is required to meet are any less – they are the same for all – but its appearance on the website’s Business page and without the usual opinion labelling may confuse some readers.

[17] The core of the complaint comes down to two things: first, its accuracy and sensitivity and, second, the specific line relating to indigenous Australians hunting and eating kangaroo.

[18] As to the latter, the article is correct, although it is improved by the addition of “some”. The issue of culling kangaroo and the use of its meat has been widely reported globally. Amongst that reporting – and several academic papers sighted online – there is much discussion about Aboriginal traditions around hunting and eating kangaroo. It is clear that while kangaroo are considered sacred and farming them would be at odds with Aboriginal tikanga (cultural practice or custom), the animals have also long been hunted and eaten.

[19] It seems Godwin implies from the most contentious sentence that Cookson is claimingall Aborigines have been eating kangaroo for centuries. That is not what the sentence said. To say “Aboriginal Australians have been eating kangaroos for thousands of years…” is to say that it has happened, not that it is universal or mandatory. However the simple addition of the word “some” removes any doubt.

[20] On the former point, Principle 4 requires the material facts on which comment pieces are based to be accurate. However they do not have to be balanced. By their nature, opinions are seldom balanced and can sometimes be offensive. Despite Godwin’s belief, the second rule of journalism is not to ensure no offence is caused. While our principles guard against gratuitous discrimination and cultural respect is encouraged, we leave a high threshold of free speech for people to express strong opinions. Cookson is exercising that right. As we often say, people do not have the right to not be offended.

[21] The Council also notes that Godwin was offered the chance to share her wisdom with Stuff readers, which would have been a great learning opportunity for those who don't have her knowledge of kangaroo and their history.

[22] While this piece is labelled ‘Reader Report’ at the top and has Stuff Nation logos throughout, it lacks the usual bold and capped word OPINION at the start of the column. The Council sees no reason why opinion pieces sent in by readers should not be labelled as clearly as columns by professionals. Indeed, reader contributions are likely to be less thoroughly researched than those by experts or professionals, so the clearest possible labelling is vital. Godwin’s confusion over the article and her belief it was written by a “journalist” suggests the labelling could have been clearer.

[23] Most of the column is about Cookson’s own experiences. Where he does rely on facts, he is accurate. The meat is low in fat. His comments on methane and water are correct. While he seems unaware that kangaroo farming is widely considered nigh-impossible due to the reasons Godwin outlines, it is not inaccurate to advocate for a nigh-impossible cause. Cookson simply says “we ought to be able to figure it [farming] out with kangaroos”, which is clearly his opinion. He is free to express it.The complaint under Principle 4 is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.