ALANA BOWMAN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDBackground
1 Alana Bowman complained about a Bob Jones column published in the New Zealand Herald on October 22, 2013. In his column Sir Robert claimed that ‘terrified’ women drivers were stopping at roundabouts and causing ‘massive pile-ups’ and delays. They were also blocking the free flow of traffic by persistently driving in the right-hand lane. The title of his column was “Spare us from road-clogging women.”
2 As for people who complained to police about him weaving around the women drivers, he said he had suggested to police that they would be ‘doing God’s work by going to the complainants’ homes, beating the crap out of them and burning their houses down’.
3 Ms Bowman said the column advocates for violence toward women. The Herald had moved away from publishing an opinion piece and into “a condoning discriminatory attitude toward women that includes the tolerating the use of violence.”
4 The attitudes expressed by the columnist were damaging and contributed to discrimination against women. As such as they were in breach of the Press Council’s principle dealing with discrimination.
5 Ms Bowman was aware of two previous complaints, which were considered and not upheld by the Council at its December 2013 meeting. Ms Bowman does make a distinction with her complaint and it sits with the responsibility of the publisher for deciding to publish the article.
6 Ms Bowman acknowledges that Sir Robert is entitled to his opinion but asks is it appropriate for the Herald to circulate it among the public? She adds that the publisher deflects its responsibility on to Sir Robert, saying, in essence, "that's how he is."
7 Ms Bowman raises a couple of cases where women were attacked in their homes. “Attacks against women in their homes are real events, not a play fantasy created to make people laugh. Like rape jokes, attempts at humour of this sort help create public acceptance of violence, and violence targeted against certain groups.”
8 Editor of the New Zealand Herald Shayne Currie says, clearly, Sir Robert had an issue with women drivers, but not all women drivers.
9 His comments were his opinion, based on his observations over the past 20 to 30 years and he had attempted to relate these in a humorous way. He accepted some people would not share Sir Robert’s sense of humour. Sir Robert was known as a provocative and forthright newspaper columnist and commentator and his column had to be read in that light.
10 The letter Sir Robert said he sent to police over complaints about him weaving around women drivers was not intended to be serious, and was not taken by police to be serious. The editor said neither Sir Robert nor the Herald condoned violence against women or anyone else.
11 He stood by Sir Robert’s right to freedom of speech and expression and offered the opportunity for Ms Bowman to express her own views through a letter to the editor.
12 The Council has been consistent in its approach on opinion pieces. It sets a high bar for a complaint to be upheld as freedom to express - even offensive views - is crucial to any democratic society. Ms Bowman’s opinion is that the column is offensive; seeing it as discriminatory against women.
13 The column uses hyperbole to revisit the well-worn refrain that women can’t drive cars properly. Ms Bowman represents a number of readers who disagree with Sir Robert’s views. However, there will be a number of readers who also read Sir Robert’s column on regular occasion for his opinions and the way he expresses them. Ms Bowman is entitled to her own opinion and was offered the opportunity to express these in response, which she did not take up.
14 In terms of the Herald’s decision to publish the opinion piece, the Council has been consistent in regards to these types of complaints. Editorial decisions are the responsibility of the publication. The Council does not wish to take that fundamental right away from publishers.
15 Complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.