Case Number: 2932

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Unfair Coverage


1. Alexander Stevens has complained about the use of a photograph of Professor Max Abbott and former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae in an article of May 24, 2020 headlinedTrans-Tasman Universities at war over top scholar’s ‘sexual stalking’. The photograph ran immediately below the article’s headline, and featured Professor Abbott and Sir Jerry with another person in the background. All present are smiling, and the photograph shows the honours medals of the two men. The caption reads “Professor Max Abbott (right), after his investiture as CNZM, for services to health, science and education, by the governor-general, Sir Jerry Mateparae, on April 26, 2016.”

2. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

3. Mr Stevens has questioned the use of an image including Sir Jerry, in an article solely focused on Mr Abbott. He says it can mislead readers by suggesting Sir Jerry was involved in the sexual stalking issue. He also questions whether there was a racial element in the use of the photograph, in an attempt to gain ‘views’. He asks that in future another image, featuring Max Abbott only, be used in the article.

4. In a subsequent comment he clarified that he is not objecting to the written content of the article and is acutely aware of the need for victims’ voices being heard. His complaint is about the ‘…inappropriate use of Maaori imagery in stories of sexual harassment and violence when it does not directly connect to that person…’.

5. Mr Stevens believes that the use of the image is not reasonable, and breaches Media Council Principle 11 which states that “Editors should take care in photographic image selection and treatment”.

The Response

6. The editor, Tracy Watkins, rejects Mr Stevens’ complaint on the grounds that the use of the photograph is not gratuitous, and shows the standing of Professor Abbott in the academic community, an important aspect of the article. The caption clearly referred to the investiture ceremony, over which the Governor-General presides. She said no reasonable person could make the mistake of assuming that Sir Jerry was the subject of the article.

7. In a subsequent comment the editor noted that the article dealt with the power imbalance between a senior male academic and a junior female academic, which might make her hesitate to make a sexual harassment complaint. The photograph of Mr Abbott receiving a royal honour illustrates his high standing. The editor also takes “huge exception” to Mr Stevens’ suggestion that there is a racial or other ulterior motive.

The Discussion

8. The Media Council Principles require editors to use their discretion in choice of images, which can be particularly powerful for a reader skimming through content; or as Mr Stevens describes it, “we now live in an age where people no longer take ‘reasonable’ time to read and absorb information”. It is clear that offence has been taken in some quarters to the use of the image in this article.

9. Nevertheless, in this example the Council considers that the photograph unmistakably shows Sir Jerry in his former role as Governor-General, and the caption was clear. The photograph illustrates the high status of an individual now involved in claims of sexual harassment, and in our view is relevant to the article. We also consider it is unlikely that any adverse racial implications would be taken by readers from the use of an image of a former Governor-General carrying out one of the most prominent functions of that office, the presentation of royal honours.

10. The complaint is not upheld.

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


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