Case Number: 2481

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2015

Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Rip it Up

Ruling Categories: Offensive Language


This complaint concerned the use of a well-known racial slur on African Americans, a word so offensive that any reference to it in mainstream media is normally written as “n*****” or “the n-word”. However in this case the word has been used in a new and positive cultural context. The complaint was not upheld with two members dissenting.

Rip It Up is a magazine devoted to rock music and its diverse culture. On September 28 its website carried a short review of a film entitled “Dope”, described as a hip hop movie featuring music videos and stylistic elements of the hip hop, or rap, genre. The term that offended the complainant is said to be liberally used in the film by young black actors to describe themselves. The review reflected the film’s relaxed and confident use of the word, which appeared in the headline, twice in the first paragraph, twice in the second and again in the third, of a four-paragraph review.

The Complaint

Angela Mabey, a journalist, complained that the use of the word was offensive and inappropriate, “no matter how it relates to the movie”. She considered it a breach of the Press Council’s Principle 7, covering discrimination and diversity. She was advised of the Council’s procedures, requiring that she first complain to the editor, and her attention was drawn to an item onRip It Up’s Facebook page on October 4, six days after the film review. It was a response from the publisher to the press coverage and criticism the review had attracted.

Ms Mabey wrote to the publisher, Grant Hislop, registering her disgust at the review and at his response on Facebook which she found “inadequate and flippant”. She received no reply and proceeded with her complaint.

The Response

The Press Council received no response from the editor, who was also the writer of the review, nor did the publisher respond. The Council could only note Mr Hislop’s admission on Facebook that the review did not go through the magazine’s usual sub-editing process and had appeared “in its raw form missing some key references.”

“Ironically,” he said, “it was the excitement for the movie and the subject matter that prompted hasty publication. The writer is not bigoted and is in fact an avid promoter of equality in all areas of our community...”

The Discussion

The Council did not agree with the complainant that the response on Facebook was inadequate and flippant. It seemed to be an honest admission that the review was written in a flush of enthusiasm for the film and was published too quickly. Mr Hislop conceded the review did not “portray our intended context”. He concluded, “The intention of the reviewer was to raise the issues that the film explores as well as exploring the taboos that surround the word “nigger” which is used throughout the film. We recognise that the intentions of the article have been misconstrued and taken out of context and apologise for any offence caused.”

An admission and apology such as that was more than the Press Council could achieve by upholding the complaint. It may be that Ms Mabey was hoping for a ruling that the use of the word “nigger” is unacceptable in any context. That is a position that could be difficult to sustain. “Dope” is not the first production in which the targets of an offensive word defuse it by reclaiming it for themselves for use among themselves. At least one drama shown on subscription television in recent years, “The Wire”, also portrayed black Americans referring to each other as “nigger”, both sympathetically and aggressively. In the same way, some gays have recently adopted the word “Queer” for themselves, but strictly among themselves. It is one thing for victims of discrimination to adopt these terms in order to draw their sting, as it were. It is another thing entirely for others to refer to them with a word that remains deeply offensive to them when used any other way.

In this case the word was used to reflect the writer’s delight in hearing it used for a confident, self-affirming purpose. There is always a risk that its use in the right context will be wrongly taken to mean anyone can use it in any context but a majority of the Council was of the view that the risk does not warrant the total prohibition of the word under Principle 7. It is, they hoped, enough to say that a word such as this should never be used without extreme care.

Two members of the Press Council Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin disagreed with the decision and would have upheld the complaint because the word remains hugely offensive and its use was not justified in that context or manner.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Sandy Gill, Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.


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