JAMES BARBER AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2683

Council Meeting: JULY 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Cartoons
Discrimination
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. James Barber complained that a cartoon published in The Dominion Post on July 2 breached Media Council Principles 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance, and 7, Discrimination and Diversity.

Background

2. The Dominion Post ran a cartoon by Al Nisbet depicting a couple heading arm in arm for bed, leaving small children at a table covered with cigarette butts and empty cans alongside a newspaper with a front-page headline ‘Working For Families $60 Each New Child,’ The cartoon speech bubble says: "Bedtime Luv! Time to try for triplets”.

The Complaint

3. Mr Barber complains that the cartoon is discriminatory and unfair in that it depicts a stereotyped image of a low-income family abusing substances and neglecting their children; it implies that their main goal in having children is to maintain state support through benefits, in this case Working for Families.

4. Mr Barber says the cartoon places gratuitous emphasis on the perpetuation of a negative stereotype and singles out a group of people who are economically and socially marginalised and who therefore possess very little power in society.

5. He complains that there is an element of racism in the cartoon because such stereotypes are often applied to people of Maori and Pacific Island background “as this cartoonist has a history of doing”.

6. Mr Barber says, “As a parent whose family is surviving on a low income, I find this personally offensive, in addition to the clear breach of the standards of the Media Council.”

The Response

7. The editor of The Press, Kamala Hayman, denied there was any breach of Media Council principles: cartoons are not bound by Principle 1 and are not required to be balanced or fair. The issue of accuracy is not relevant, she said.

8. Despite there being no requirement to do so, both The Dominion Post andThe Press, which had also published the cartoon, ran a number of letters expressing strong views in opposition to Al Nisbet’s cartoon, as well as some supporting it.

9. Ms Hayman defended the cartoon against Principle 7, which deals with issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour of physical or mental disability.

She said the cartoon did suggest there are couples who view having children as a way of earning financial support from the state, but she rejected the suggestion of racism, saying the characters depicted are not of any identifiable race.

10. Ms Hayman referred the complainant to Principle 5, the principle governing the publication of cartoons, which states that cartoons, like columns, blogs, opinion and letters, are understood to be opinion, and that “such content is understood to consist largely of the writer’s own opinions”.

11. “We support the right to freedom of expression by our contributors, so we choose not to censor their views, even those we may be offended by, unless they break the law,” she said.

She had offered the complainant an opportunity to have his views expressed in response to the cartoon.

The Decision

12. Al Nisbet’s cartoon depicting a couple and their kids surrounded by the detritus of an evening of drinking and smoking was controversial and clearly hit a nerve with a number of readers ofThe Dominion Post and The Press, who complained vociferously in letters to the editor in the following days.

13. Mr Barber complained that the cartoon placed gratuitous emphasis on the negative stereotype often applied to lower socio-economic groups, which he found personally offensive. He said negative stereotyping is often applied to Maori and Pacific Island families, suggesting this is something Al Nisbet has a history of doing.

14. As has been noted in previous decisions, the Media Council is committed upholding the democratic right to freedom of expression, which is inextricably bound to freedom of the media: cartoons represent freedom of expression at its most extreme interpretation. By their very nature, they are confronting, challenging and frequently offensive, provoking outrage from readers as in the case of this Al Nisbet cartoon. However, no matter how unpalatable their message may be, they are one person’s opinion, and readers do not have the right not to be offended.

15. In line with previous decisions on complaints about cartoons, we do not considerThe Dominion Post to have breached either Principle 1 or Principle 7. For the reasons outlined in paragraph 14, there is also no breach of Principle 5.

16. The complaint is not upheld.

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