Bob McLellan complains against publication of a letter to the editor in the Upper Hutt Leader for its use of the term “eco-nazi” arguing that while it did not breach an exact Press Council principle it offended against Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
The complaint is not upheld.

The letter, headlined “Tree sculpture prompts moaners” was published on July 11, 2012 in a long-running and spirited exchange between supporters of the Forest and Bird Society’s encouragement of native tree plantings in the Upper Hutt region and several other letter writers who disagree that an only-native trees and plants policy is beneficial. Over the course of several weeks many letters were published in ping-pong of ideas between these two opposing groups. The publication of a number of photographs of exotics trees in the glorious autumn foliage appears to have initiated the exchange.

The Complaint
The complainant finds the use of the expression “eco-nazi” extremely offensive and argues it implies the existence of extreme characteristics including thuggery, racial hate, murderous intent and corruption. This would be particularly appalling to men and women who had fought in the war against Nazism. He felt this deeply insulting language should not be published in any newspaper and asked that an apology be published and that the correspondence on this topic be closed.

The Newspaper’s View
The newspaper said the phrase is one of a modern collection that includes “food-nazi, petrol-nazi” and “spelling-nazi”. The newspaper used the term “food-nazi” to explain how it is used by some to describe people who try to impose their strongly held views on what foods should be, and should not be, eaten. It said a Google search would reveal widespread use of such phrases.
It also argued that many environmental projects in the Upper Hutt region involve removal of exotic vegetation, an initiative of the Forest and Bird Society, and this prompts strong disapproval from some residents including the letter writer S. Haden.
However, the newspaper argued that such readers have the right to express their position through the letters to the editor column and noted that the debate had been lively. It suggested that perhaps the reason for such a level of community involvement arose from the number of significant stands of both exotic and native trees in the region which is one of the attractions of living in Upper Hutt.
The newspaper saw no reason to apologise or close the correspondence on what would be an ongoing debate.
Further Responses
The complainant does not accept the newspaper's justifying the use of the word on the basis that people have a right to express their opposition - a right which he upholds in principle.

He argues this right is not an open licence to use any form of language. Nor is the fact that some people use such terms as “eco-nazi” and “food-nazi” a justifiable case for it being acceptable in a community newspaper when it is directed at a small, identifiable group. He remains of the view that the letter, in its use of the “eco-nazi” and a reference to "fanatics”, is insulting and denigrating.
The newspaper, in its response, identified both Mr McLellan and writer of the complained-about letter S. Haden as regular letter writers and both passionate about the Upper Hut environment. The editor illustrated that both sides of the ongoing debate about de-forestation and planting projects were allowed to have their say in the letters to the editor column with special care taken to alternate the ‘lead’ letter between the two main factions. The term is a modern one used to describe people who try to impose their radical environmental views on others.
Words do change their meaning over time, both gaining and losing power. The term “Nazi” originally meant a member of the German National Socialist Party, led by Adolf Hitler from 1920. However, today’s online Oxford Dictionary definition includes not only that (“a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party”) but also “a person with extreme racist or authoritarian views” and a third definition being “a person who seeks to impose their views on others in a very autocratic or inflexible way”. Language is dynamic and evolving and the popular adoption of this word means it is used with frequency in some social circles. It is true that other members of society may be seriously offended by its casual use to mean an intolerant person. However, that is not a reason to uphold a complaint against a publication for its use.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.


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