NATHAN MARSDEN AGAINST THE DOMINION POST / STUFF

Case Number: 2712

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Discrimination
Offensive Language

Overview

[1] Nathan Marsden has complained about a column by Joel Maxwell that ran on Stuff and inThe Dominion Post. Titled ‘Let’s hear it for Davidson’s c-word and Brash’s M-word’, it ran on August 13, 2018.

[2] The column is about free speech, starting with Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson using the c-word and going on to discuss Don Brash being banned from speaking at Massey University and Maxwell’s views on Pakeha privilege.

The Complaint

[3] Marsden is concerned that Maxwell “engages in offensive racial harassment”. He says the columnist mocks Pakeha and is “racially abusive” and is in breach of Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity.

[4] The complainant identifies three sentences he finds offensive.

  • “But then woman-hating Pakeha weirdos arrived and took the vagina into some dark places”.
  • “Seriously, what are the everyday hazards for Pākehā? International milk powder prices,Coronation Street, not enough dog parks?”

“What if all those years ago I had been born different? Born of the tupuna that created cheeses, pyjamas, printing presses, global climate change, modern antibiotics, trains, nukes. Born a thin-lipped, blue-eyed middle-class god of worldwide destruction. You know, born Pākehā”.

[5] Marsden quotes the Human Rights Commission: “We also have the right to not be harassed, taunted or teased because of our colour, our accent, the way we dress, the food we eat or anything else related to our race or ethnicity.”

[6] He urges The Dominion Post to provide “helpful commentary on race relations without reverting to throwing insults at Pakeha”.

The Response

[7] Dominion Post Editor Eric Janssen defends Maxwell’s rights to speak freely on the paper’s and website’s Opinion pages.

[8] Janssen says Maxwell was comparing his life experience as a Maori with a typical Pakeha experience. “These comparisons spell out an unfortunate truth of life in New Zealand; to recognise this does not constitute racial harassment”.

[9] Janssen points out that issues of ethnicity, gender and similarly sensitive topics are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant to the public interest. Maxwell addresses such issues regularly as one of the few Maori columnists in New Zealand print or digital media.

[10] Maxwell sometimes tackles these issues in a “discomfiting way”, Janssen says. He goes on to point out this is not the first complaint to the Council about Maxwell in recent months and they all “relate not to the content of what he writes but rather to the fact he dares to say things about the state of race relations that some readers do not want to hear”.

[11] Brash and Maxwell, for example, have clashed on Stuff’s pages about race relations, but both defend the other’s right to voice them and it would be a great shame, Janssen writes, if the Pakeha was hailed a hero of free speech and the Maori a racist.

[12] The editor argues “a little bit of mockery seems a small price to pay for the relative comforts and advantages Pakeha enjoy”.

The Decision

[13] This complaint and the issues surrounding it mirror a complaint last month about the same columnist and the Council in this case has come to the same conclusion for much the same reasons.

[14] The column is clearly labelled Opinion and so readers will be aware that this is one person’s view on race relations amongst many presented by Stuff andThe Dominion Post.

[15] The Council would note that, as admirable as the Human Rights Commission’s statement is, our judgement is prescribed by – and limited to – our own principles. One of the most important of those is freedom of expression and when it comes to opinions there should be few restrictions.

[16] The complaint is rightly laid under Principle 7 and so the question is whether the columnist or publication has been “gratuitous” in their emphasis on, in this case, “race” and “colour”.

[17] Maxwell’s column is undoubtedly provocative and, as Janssen says, “discomfiting” for some. Other, however, will find it a refreshing or entertaining.

[18] It is clear that the columnist is employing hyperbole to make his case; even humour. He is careful not to be entirely critical of Pakeha, crediting them with the printing press, antibiotics and cheese as well as climate change and worldwide destruction. As we noted in the previous complaint, Maxwell is clearly trying to confront and challenge readers and some would say that is part of a columnist’s stock in trade.

[19] The complainant, however, finds it “offensive”. That is his right, but as the Council often notes, readers do not have the right to not be offended. No-one is forcing the complainant to read that column or even that newspaper or website. Marsden has the right to ignore them and hold different views. That does not mean he has the right to stop Maxwell expressing his.

[20] As Maxwell makes clear, the crux of the column is freedom of speech. Specifically, Maxwell is comparing the freedom of a Maori political leader with the freedom of a Pakeha former leader. And while his description of Pakeha will be offensive to some, his underlying point about inequality is a serious one. So race is at the heart of his argument and his discussion of it is in no way gratuitous.

The complaint under Principle 7 is not upheld.

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