COMPLAINT AGAINST SOUTHLAND TIMES
1. The complaint alleges The Southland Times failed to comply with Principles 3 (children and young people) and 10 (photographs and graphics) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in relation to a story published on 2 July 2013. The story was headed “Leotards on kids going too far – Esler”.
2. The Press Council upholds the complaint.
3. The story related to comments by an Invercargill City Councilor Lloyd Esler to the effect that young girls were being “sexualised” by wearing tight leotard costumes in aerobics and similar competitions. The story reported Mr Esler is saying that “about” four parents had told him they felt that the leotard costumes their children wore during the Sport Southland Aerobics and Hip Hop festival in June were inappropriate. The story also claimed that one of the parents refused to allow her daughter to compete, presumably for this reason. Mr Esler was reported as also saying he had seen a photo in a newspaper showing children in shorts and tops instead of leotards and thought they were a more appropriate costume.
4. Mr Esler was reported as saying that he wanted The Southland Times to adopt a “policy” not to publish pictures of children wearing such costumes. Others disagreed. Comments from the Sports Southland chief executive and the principal of a local school were published to the effect that children had been wearing leotards for years and there was nothing untoward about it.
5. The story carried a photograph with the caption “Too far…”. The photograph showed three young girls dressed in leotards competing in the Sport Southland event.
6. The complaint contends that The Southland Times “acted unethically” by attaching the photograph to the article. While not complaining about the story itself the complainant claims The Southland Times was wrong in publishing the image essentially because it drew an unwarranted and inappropriate connection between the sexualisation claims and the three children pictured. The image “caused pandemonium and hysteria to the detriment of [those photographed].” The photograph was taken while the three children were performing at a regional aerobics competition. If the image was to be published it should have appeared just in association with the sporting event and not in relation to Mr Esler’s claims.
7. The complainant says that “rather than looking back on achievement and success, [one participant] now associates the whole experience [of performing] with feelings of shame and embarrassment”.
8. The Southland Times responds by saying that this story was “an important news issue raised by a city councillor”. The photo in question, which was reproduced at the bottom of the story, is one the newspaper had in fact previously published when reporting on the aerobics competition. The newspaper said the image had been “scaled down” to remind readers of the costuming but without inviting particular attention to the faces of the dancers. The dancers were not named.
9. The newspaper claims that if the faces of the dancers were obscured it would only have heightened interest and suggested the girls’ dress and movements were salacious or immodest when they were not. Essentially the newspaper claimed it was necessary to publish the photograph to enable readers to judge the concerns of Mr Esler and his fellow complainants.
10. Principle 3 provides that in cases involving children and young people editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the interest of the child or young person.
11. Principle 10 provides that editors should take care in photographic and image selection and treatment….
12. There is no issue as to the story’s content. The councilor had made statements which were contentious. His comments were balanced with remarks from those who held opposing views. The issue is simply whether the particular photograph of the three young girls should have been published in conjunction with the story.
13. The Press Council does not think it should have been. The Council accepts the claim that at least one of the children was readily identifiable although not named. There was no need, in the Council’s view, for this particular image to have been used so as to allow readers to make the comparison the newspaper refers to. Another, less “personalised”, image would likely have been available for the purpose. Principle 3 requires newspapers to demonstrate “exceptional public interest” to override the interests of a child or young person. The prospect that these children were known in the local community should have warned the newspaper against publishing the image in this context. Principles 3 and 10 in this case combine to have required The Southland Times to be more sensitive than it was.
14. The complaint is upheld.
15. The photograph concerned is currently illustrating the article on Stuff. The Press Council rarely requests that material be removed from online news-sites however, in this case, the photograph should be removed from the website. The online story should note that the photograph has been removed as a result of a complaint to the Press Council and that the Press Council decision is available at www.presscouncil.org.nz
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.