C.HALL AGAINST NORTHLAND AGE

Case Number: 768

Council Meeting: December 1999

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Northland Age

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Taste Lack of

The New Zealand Press Council, in a majority decision, has not upheld a complaint about a series of so-called jokes inserted by the Northland Age among classified advertisements in an August edition of the newspaper. The complaint, by Miss C Hall of Kaitaia, was originally forwarded to the Advertising Standards Complaints Authority. But because the words at the centre of the complaint were not advertisements, they were deemed to fall within the ambit of the Press Council.

The "jokes" are a series of definitions of political correctness and all relate to women. There are 13 in total, which include the following:
- PC - She does not want to be married - she wants to lock you in domestic incarceration.
- PC - She does not gain weight - she is a metabolic under-achiever.
- PC - She does not wear too much perfume - she commits fragrance abuse.
- PC - She is not dumb - she is a detour off the information superhighway.
- PC - She is not too skinny - she is skeletally prominent.

Miss Hall wrote a strongly worded letter of complaint to the Northland Age which was published in full. The complaint before the Press Council made similar points: that the inserts were denigrating and offensive to women; that they encouraged outdated stereotypes; that they encouraged bigotry and prejudice against women; that women were unfairly singled out.

Miss Hall wrote: "Domestic abuse against women by their partners is a major problem in this area. How can our community expect our young men to learn to treat women with respect and dignity when the local paper openly ridicules women. The Northland Age has clearly proclaimed their social attitude to women by publishing these comments. These are no jokes."
Miss Hall also complained that the inserts were excessive in number and that they were placed among the classifieds ads with no headline to give readers an indication and a choice as to what they were about to read.

The editor in response to the Press Council, said the material in question was intended as humorous. "I accept that defining humour can be difficult when dealing with a group as large as our readership, and every effort is made to reject anything which might give offence."

He said it was perhaps an error to publish so many items in one issue "although I accept that C Hall would not have found them amusing one a time either."
The editor said he believed that publishing Miss Hall's letter in full went some way to
addressing his responsibility. He also said the standard by which material was assessed was a constantly evolving process and Miss Hall's complaint would contribute to that process in the future. He said the newspaper was a strong supporter of numerous organisations that worked for the betterment of women.The Press Council shared Miss Hall's concerns about the material being interspersed throughout the classifieds section. It also shared her view that these inserts were not jokes. No member ofthe Press Council believed the material in question was humorous. Most shared the view that the somewhat puerile material could, indeed, be seen as offensive - but not to the extent of upholding the complaint.On a vote of 6 to 4, the council did not believe the newspaper transgressed into unethical practice.
It held that the editor's right to publish, even material that might diminish his own newspaper's reputation, outweighed the case to uphold the complaint. The council was, nonetheless, disappointed that the editor saw fit to publish such material.
The complaint was vigorously debated within the council and a minority view is offered by those who favoured an upheld complaint, the chairman, Sir John Jeffries, Sandra Goodchild, Dinah Dolbel and Denis McLean.

Dissent

Reasons for dissenting from the majority opinion are set out below.

There were 13 insertions (a large number) and women were exclusively the butt, or target, in a derisory fashion. Each of the 13 was preceded by the letters PC which seemed to aggravate the feature. Examples of the insertions are included in the majority decision.
The insertions repeated outworn stereotypes which have generally passed out of the currency of acceptable writing and speech. They are gratuitously offensive to half the population and give currency to prejudice which is not without potentially damaging effects for women. Furthermore they express attitudes which society has made a conscious effort to eradicate.

Principle 8 of the Statement of Principles adopted by the Council with the sub-heading "Discrimination" says:
'Publications should not place gratuituous emphasis on gender, religion, minority
groups, sexual orientation, race, colour, or physical or mental disability unless the
description is in the public interest.'
Gratuitous emphasis, in a derogatory manner, is placed on females and there was no public interest involved. In our view there was a breach of Principle 8.

Placement of the "jokes" in classified advertising, was a strong point of the complainant that by occupying random spots in the classifieds she was unable to avoid reading material that she found offensive and denigratory of women. She said she had no choice if she wanted to read the classifieds.
We agree with this particular of the complaint.

There is another objection which is open. It is an accepted rule of publishing of newspapers that there should be maintained a strict division between the editorial and business sides of newspapers. There are sound reasons for this rule in that editorial independence is overtly maintained and ensures to the public that the news side of newspapers is unaffected by commercial considerations. The Council in a recent decision Case No. 732 Glensor and the Wainuiomata News reinforced this rule.
The Press Council has 3 limbs central to its mission. It is a complaint resolution body; it promotes freedom of the press and maintains the highest journalistic standards. In the view of the minority the publication of the 13 insertions positioned in the classified ads column was poor journalistic practice and breached the highest standards to which the Press Council is committed.

The minority believes the faint humour that might be extracted is outweighed by the overall damaging and offensive impact of the insertions. The freedom of speech argument is perhaps stronger but by the adoption of Principles and commitment to the maintenance of highest journalistic standards the Council accepts that there are restraints on this most important principle if the publication in question calls for it. In the view of the minority the line was crossed in this instance and the complainant deserved an upheld decision.