Case Number: 3080

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists
Columnists Opinion
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori

The Complaint

1. Bruce Scott-Hill complains about a Stuff column of 24 June by Virginia Fallon, headlinedAotearoa: Who’s afraid of the ‘A’ word. The article is subtitled Opinion: New Zealand is the land of the long white cloud and dinosaurs that never died out. It goes on to say that a reaction to use of the word Aotearoa as the name for New Zealand is “like a Rorschach test for racists”; and refers to Winston Peters’ recent speech in which he criticised the increased use of te reo Maori in public life, particularly the use of Aotearoa as the name for New Zealand. Ms Fallon’s opinion piece compares Mr Peters to “a breath of old stale air to occasionally remind us how far we’ve come and how easily we could revert”; and says “most families have a Winston of their own: an older relative who stubbornly refuses to adapt so spends their latter years stumbling about in a world they no longer understand. But a bit like the family dog who goes senile and lunges incontinently at the children, we keep them about because despite their increasingly unacceptable behaviour, we know they can’t help it.”

2. The complainant believes that much of the article is based on denigrating and insulting people who are older and conservative. He is concerned by the article’s equating with racists and dogs, people who prefer the official title New Zealand instead of Aotearoa. He points out that opinion polling shows that a substantial majority of people prefer the term New Zealand as the name of this country. Mr Scott-Hill accepts that the journalist prefers the name Aotearoa, and as Christian non-racist, sympathises with her feelings; but says she shows disrespect for, and denigrates those who do not agree with her. He says this “is not really a good look from a writer asking for inclusiveness and tolerance when it comes to language”. He believes the article abuses her power and privileged position as a journalist of a major New Zealand news outlet.

3. The complainant says his overall concern is that it is “one thing to have a different opinion, but to denigrate everyone else who has a different opinion, is for me a new appalling low in New Zealand’s public journalism.”

The Response

4. The News Director, Opinion, at Stuff Patrick Piercy initially responded briefly to the complaint by rejecting the complainant’s views and implying to him that his complaint email was, in itself, an example of the “racist dinosaur” response to the use of the word Aotearoa. Following the initial involvement of the Media Council in the complaint, the News Director conceded the initial response to Mr Scott-Hill was provocative, “unprofessional and should have been more circumspect”; and has apologised to Mr Scott-Hill for that initial response. In a later, subsequent response Mr Piercy said: “She (Ms Fallon) is not being personally disrespectful towards Mr Scott-Hill, whom she does not know. Rather, he (the complainant) has chosen to identify himself as one of her targets, and to take offence accordingly.”

5. The editor maintains that the point made by Virginia Fallon in her opinion column was true: “the word “Aotearoa” is a trigger for certain people who object to the increasing use of te reo in New Zealand media; “a Rorschach test” for racists as she puts it”. Opinion articles, he says, are not required to debate pros and cons at length; the author is clearly and openly putting a case for “Aotearoa” and why that angers certain people. There was no attempt to mislead or misinform readers; the journalist simply makes a case, with which the complainant disagrees.

6. Mr Piercy does not agree that this is Ms Fallon “using her “privileged” position as a journalist to promote her “despicable propaganda”. On the contrary she has spent most of her life, as a woman of colour, having to put up with the sort of abuse she is now - at long last - able to condemn publicly.”

7. Mr Piercy concedes that the article implies anyone who reacts negatively to the use of Aotearoa could be considered racist. Such a stance is likely to upset and offend certain readers, but no-one has the right not to be offended. Mr Piercy says Stuff does not apologise for its recent campaign on issues of racial tolerance and inequality.

The Discussion

8. Mr Scott-Hill’s complaint falls to be considered mainly under Media Council Principle 5 Columns, Blogs Opinion and Letters; Principle 6 Discrimination and Diversity; and on general ethical grounds. The relevant parts of the Principles include: an opinion column does not require balance; material facts on which an opinion is based need to be accurate. In addition, the Councilhas previously ruled that an opinion piece can take a strong position; the Council will not uphold complaints against expressions of opinion that are extreme, provocative and offensive, and even abusive; however, if an opinion is exceptionally extreme or egregious a complaint may be upheld. The Council has also said that no-one has the right not to be offended.

9. Aotearoa is now widely used alone or in combination with New Zealand and is sanctioned in practice by public and official usage on passports and banknotes. However, the use of the name is clearly still a matter of controversy, illustrated very recently by anti te reo placards in the 2021 farmers’ march; and by media accounts that they continue to receive many, sometimes angry, protests when using Aotearoa and te reo in their reporting and presentation. Recently reported opinion polls show that many New Zealanders (between 60 and 70% of those polled) wish to retain the name New Zealand.

10. Mr Scott-Hill’s complaint is, however, not against the use of the term Aotearoa, which appears to be the main part of Stuff’s arguments in response. It is against the article’s portrayal of people who oppose the use of the Aotearoa as “racist”, “comparable to the family dog who goes senile and lunges incontinently at the children”, “dinosaurs”, “displaying unacceptable behaviour” and “on the endangered species list”.

11. Some readers will see the language and opinions complained of as offensive and abusive, and as cruel amusement at the expense of ordinary older people of conservative views. Others will see them as satirical and to be shrugged off, rather than taken seriously. The Council notes that the remarks complained of are directed at ordinary citizens, rather than intended to expose misbehavior by public officials or people in the public eye, as has been the case with some previous complaints of extreme or abusive language; and notes the use of satire is not mentioned by Stuff in its responses. However, the article is undoubtedly an exercise of freedom of speech and gives a voice to the feelings and opinions of some of those who promote the use of Aotearoa and te reo generally.

12. We now turn to consideration of the complaint against the principles. Balance is not essential in an opinion piece. Factual accuracy can be questioned here, as the article implies that opponents of the use of Aotearoa are a small minority who will shortly die out. However, reputable opinion polls suggest at least 60% of New Zealanders do not support a name change from New Zealand to Aotearoa (bearing in mind that some who do not support an official name change may have no objection to the increased use of the name). However, the facts about the numbers of people supporting name change are not specifically addressed in the article so the Council considers polling information as interesting context, but not directly relevant to this complaint.

13. Principle 6 Discrimination and Diversity includes age, race and physical or mental disability as “legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest….but should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis” on these categories. The article is certainly unpleasant and denigrating about some older people. Ms Fallon categorises those who do not support the use of Aotearoa as racist. The Council takes the view that there are many reasons people do not accept it and to cast them all as racist is extreme.But in the Council’s view, although Ms Fallon’s opinions are very strongly expressed, they do not amount to gratuitous emphasis in the context of a lively opinion article. The parts of the article complained about will be offensive to some or even many, but the Council has consistently maintained there is ‘no right not to be offended’.

14. Turning to ethical matters, the Council thinks it unfortunate that, despite its initial apology to the complainant, Stuff has continued to personalise the response to Mr Scott-Hill, rather than treating it as the generic complaint which it was. In a further response Mr Piercy said: “She (Ms Fallon) is not being personally disrespectful towards Mr Scott-Hill, whom she does not know. Rather, he has chosen to identify himself as one of her targets, and to take offence accordingly.”It would have been preferable to confine the response to the relevant, generic points about which Mr Scott-Hill complained.

15. The Council understands and appreciates that Stuff and is openly and transparently taking a stance on giving value and prominence to Maori views, news, issues and to te reo, which have often been poorly covered, ignored or misrepresented in the past. However, we hope Stuff will reflect on Mr Scott-Hill’s view that humiliating and denigrating another group of the general public is unnecessary and undesirable in making worthwhile points about Maori issues.

16. After careful consideration, the Council considers the article does not cross the line into the extreme circumstances or egregious language which would justify upholding the complaint. Freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental value which needs to be protected. However, we note that the handling of this complainant by Stuff was disrespectful and suggest that in future Stuff confines itself to responding to the points at issue, rather than criticising a complainant.

17. On balance, the complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.


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