ALEX LEECH AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2956

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On 14 October 2020 Stuff published a review of a new Netflix film ‘Cuties’. The review was by Justin Chang, chief film reviewer at the Los Angeles Times, and was published under a syndication arrangement. It was titled:Review: Cuties deserves better than it got from Netflix – and from those who condemned it sight unseen.

2. The film is about an eleven year old girl, Amy, a member of the Senegalese community in Paris. She goes through demanding experiences adapting to a new school, to the free youth environment in a Paris suburb, disturbing family events and cultural contrasts, and at the same time has easy access to social media. Amy joins a preteen girls’ dance group which gives increasingly sexualised performances. The film shows they were influenced towards this by adult content they accessed from social media.

3. The film was directed by Maimouna Doucoure who says the film was inspired partly by her own childhood. The film won the directing award at Sundance Film Festival. It was generally well reviewed, and has a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 86% based on 73 reviews. The movie is currently available to subscribers on Netflix. It carries a 16+ classification.

4. The poster, the trailer, and the movie itself, have been the subject of controversy and backlash in the US and on social media. Some groups and politicians strongly believe the movie sexualises and exploits children, including the trailer and poster initially put online by Netflix, which featured sexualised images of preteens and arguably conveyed a false impression of the movie itself. As a result a public petition was circulated called “Cancel Netflix”. On 21 August 2020 Netflix said it was “deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork” and changed the images used.

The Complaint

5. Alex Leech complains that the Justin Chang review made false claims. The complainant singled out as incorrect Justin Chang’s views that public objections that the movie was inappropriately sexualising young girls were unfair, and that the movie itself was worthy of better consideration. The complainant objects to the reviewer’s statement that “Doucoure has made an empathetic and analytical movie”. The complainant also considers that the review leaves the impression the movie is appropriate for family viewing; and objects to Mr Chang expressing the view that the “self-styled internet moralists” who criticised the movie, are incorrect, and conspiracy theorists. The complainant also describes and gives reference to a number of rating standards and legal provisions in support of the view that Stuff, by publishing the review, breached Media Council standards and should apologise. In subsequent correspondence the complainant said that by praising the movie and not disclosing legal implications Stuff breached accuracy standards.

6. The complainant did not receive a response from Stuff, until the complaint had been raised with them by the Media Council. The complainant does not accept Stuff’s explanation below.

The Response

7. Geoff Collett, Editor-in-Chief, Verticals, at Stuff replied. The initial failure to respond was because the complaint had gone into a staffer’s email junk folder, and had not therefore been noticed. Stuff says it has a strict editorial policy of responding promptly and thoroughly to complaints, and apologised for the breakdown of process in this case.

8. In relation to the complaint about publication of the review, the editor says he entirely disagrees with Mr Leech and firmly defends Stuff’s right to publish. The editor makes the following points. The article is clearly labelled as a review, and is the reviewer’s opinion. The writer is an experienced and respected reviewer and Stuff has no doubt his views are based on a considered and thorough assessment of the movie and the debate surrounding it. The articles cited by the complainant which describe the movie as “pornography” and “paedophilia” are opinions as well. Publishing the review does not mean Stuff necessarily endorses the reviewer’s opinions, but it strongly stands behind the reviewer’s right to express his views, and Stuff’s own right to reproduce those views as a contribution to the debate. Stuff has published several articles about the debate including one which took an opposing view to the LA Times reviewer. There is no suggestion in the review that the movie is family friendly. The NZ Classification Office has blogged that “although sexualisation messages in the film were problematic they were well contextualised within the film.” The NZCO recommended that the film carry a 16+ classification. Stuff says the film has not been classified as pornography and legal sanctions do not therefore apply.

The Decision

9. The complaint about lack of response is noted, but the Council understands that occasional problems will occur with online processes. It accepts that Stuff normally responds to complaints promptly.

10. The controversy surrounding this Netflix movie has been considerable. There are troubling aspects to the movie’s use of images of preteen girls’ sexualised behaviour. However, a viewing of the movie reveals that the material complained of is put into a strong context of illustrating how social media can adversely influence young girls’ behaviour. It is not within the Media Council’s mandate to review or come to a conclusion on the rights and wrongs of a film which has been both widely criticised and widely praised. We have to confine ourselves to the issue of whether the publication of the review itself was in breach of media standards.

11. The Council has considered the complaint under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4, Comment and Fact; and Principle 5, Columns Blogs Opinions and Letters. The review was clearly labelled as a review, and was equally clearly the opinion of the reviewer. Facts cited by the complainant in support of his case were actually statements of opinion. Legal and censorship issues are outside the Council’s mandate. The definition of “porn” covers a wide range of material and the Council does not approach issues from a legal point of view. In the Council’s view, the review covered the fact that the movie was the subject of much public controversy, did not deliberately mislead or misinform and was not factually inaccurate.It was obvious that the article was opinion rather than fact. Balance about the controversy was provided by other relevant material published by Stuff. No questionable material about the girls themselves was published by Stuff, so Principle 3, Children and Young People is not engaged.

12. The Council finds that Stuff was not in breach of Principles 1, 4 and 5. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper,Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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