DIANNE SHARMA-WINTER AND OTHERS AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2862

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Cartoons
Discrimination
Editorial Discretion
Privilege
Taste Lack of
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

The Cartoon

On December 3, 2019 the Otago Daily Times published a Garrick Tremain cartoon depicting two women leaving a travel agency.One woman was saying to the other “I asked What are the least popular spots at the moment?She said The ones people are picking up in Samoa”.

The cartoon was published in the context of a measles epidemic sweeping Samoa which had resulted in 62 deaths (52 of them babies and children) at the time the cartoon was published.

Over the next few days the Media Council received over 130 complaints, most expressing their concern that such tragedy could be used for comic effect in a cartoon.

Of the many complaints five have been sufficiently processed to be used as exemplar complaints for the Media Council to consider under the fast-track process.

The Complaint

The Complaints

We summarise what was said in the five example complaints. It should be noted that these complaints were received after the first apology, but before the extensive front-page apology that was published on December 5.

Vanessa Hawken

The Otago Daily Times published a racist, heartless cartoon about the measles epidemic in Samoa at a time where the nation is mourning the deaths of over 55 people, 50 of them being babies and children. It is not the first incidence of racist cartoons by this "artist", and the editor should not be allowing this kind of material to be printed. It is hurtful, upsetting and callous.

Sarah McLean-Orsborn

I was very disappointed, disheartened and disgusted by the cartoon created by Garrick Tremain which was approved by editor Barry Stewart on Tuesday 3rd December 2019 in theOtago Daily Times and the following ‘apology’ that was then produced. I am not sure how such a grave situation that is playing out in Samoa, that is seeing medical professionals from developed countries take unpaid leave to try and assist could be seen as a laughing matter, or even remotely amusing.

If your families had suffered such a loss that many are facing would you have created such a cartoon or even considered publishing this? Instead of making ‘fun’ of current events, why don’t you use your abilities, your privilege and your power to do some good and build communities up? I do hope that from this backlash you have faced, your paper will put processes and procedures in place to ensure this does not happen again.

Vanisha Mishra-Vakaoti

I write to express my anger, disappointment and deep concern that the cartoon by Garrick Tremain passed theOtago Daily Times selection process and was published on 3rd December 2019.

The Otago Daily Times ought to consider a revision of their selection and publication guidelines as well as cultural and sensitivity training for its staff – beginning with senior management

In printing the cartoon the Otago Daily Times caused an initial wave of trauma and hurt, the inadequate apology from Barry Stewart caused a second wave of trauma. This in addition to the grief that Samoan families are already grappling with.

As of 3rd December 2019 there have been 62 deaths due to measles in Samoa, with 3,881 confirmed measles cases in the country

The “apology” from the Otago Daily Times showed no understanding of the situation, nor an appreciation for why the public reaction is as it is. To begin with a more considered apology is necessary, one that includes action – a donation to the relief efforts and a plan on how processes will change. What training has been, and will continue to be offered to staff. This, at the very least.

Dianne Sharma-Winter

I am appalled but hardly surprised at your pathetic racist slant and joke of an apology with regard to the Tremain cartoon reducing the tragedy in Samoa to a joke.

Aside from the fact this isn't funny and there's no real potential for a joke to be had here, even as the edgiest satire, it utilises the tired old trope of reducing Samoa to a holiday destination as its primary function - over the grief of an unfolding tragedy. Talk about tone-deaf.

Still, 55 deaths - 52 of them children - seems to provide Tremain and the ODT with an opportunity for mirth.

Jenny Tutu

I am complaining about the cartoon published in ODT making fun of the shocking measles epidemic in Samoa. The publication is totally unacceptable. To add insult to injury the published apology was pathetic. There needs to be a consequence for both the cartoonist and editor who gets final say. It is appalling and has put race relations back years.

The Response

Barry Stewart, in a response to the Media Council, catalogued the Otago Daily Times response to the more than 2000 complaints and comments that were received within 24 hours of the cartoon being published.He noted that the initial online and print apology had not been accepted by the community and by Wednesday “it was clear the newspaper needed to restate and reinforce its apology at length, in detail and with prominence”. A detailed apology was published online later that day and in print on Thursday.

In addition on Thursday and Friday the op-ed pages were devoted to publishing some of the many messages they had received.

Further commitments were detailed and, the Council was advised, have been progressed.These include

* An immediate change to the way the cartoon is considered and selected. It had become custom for the editor to sign off the cartoon each day. The cartoon is now considered and debated by members of the wider editorial team.

* A review of the processes that led to the cartoon’s publication has begun. This is being independently conducted by Deloitte. The cartoonist’s work will not be considered for publication while this process continues.

* Improving community relationships. The editor has met with representatives of the Dunedin Samoan community and they have helped him begin the process of healing the wounds caused by the cartoon. He has apologised and has committed the newspaper to help the southern Samoan community in its measles response.

* Improving cultural awareness. Allied Press’ human resources department is working to facilitate staff training to improve cultural awareness and to counter unconscious bias. A broader examination of the organisation’s cultural make-up is also being considered.

“The newspaper accepts the cartoon should not have been selected for the editorial page, and it understands why it caused such distress. It should not have been published.

“The newspaper should have made its regret much clearer as soon as it understood the impact of its decision. It remains sorry for the regretful publication and is committed to setting things right, to ensure such lapses do not occur in the future. The newspaper wants to continue to hold a mirror to its community and understands it can only do so if it is reflective of the many communities it serves.”



The Decision

Analysis

The Media Council acknowledges the plight of the people of Samoa.It acknowledges the anger, grief and pain that the publication of the cartoon caused, most acutely to the families of victims, and to Samoans and New Zealanders generally.

Should the cartoon have been published?

The Media Council has only rarely upheld a complaint against a cartoon. As noted in Case 2787

Previous decisions have acknowledged that cartoons “are given a wide licence to offend” and offer confronting and affronting views that are “often strong and pungent”. A commentary offered in the 2012 Annual Report compares cartoonists to court jesters, “enjoying a special license to make exaggerated and comic criticisms”. Cartoons are often offensive to certain nationalities, socio-economic or religious groups, political parties, and individuals, amongst others.

As recently as 2017 the Council declined to uphold a complaint against a provocative anti-Trump cartoon, saying, “Cartoons in the media represent freedom of speech at its most extreme interpretation. By their very nature, they are confronting, challenging and sometimes offensive”.

Cartoonists employ wit, satire, exaggeration, caricature and humour to make a point.A few deft stokes of the pen and a few well-chosen words can do what would otherwise take many words to express.Cartoons often deal with grave situations and can make fun of unfunny events; by their nature they will often cause offence.That is a freedom to be defended. However even with cartoons there is a line of gratuitous offence and hurt which when crossed can constitute a breach of the professional standards by the media.

This is such a cartoon.It has no redeeming qualities.It was a play on use of the word “spots”. It was a weak attempt at humour.It was dependent for the joke on a measles epidemic that had cost the lives of 52 babies and children and 10 adults.It showed no human understanding of the dire situation Samoa was facing.

We note that other cartoonists have commented on the unspoken rule of cartooning - “punch up, not down”.This cartoon broke that rule.A way of testing this is to ask, could any reasonable New Zealander who saw the cartoon have considered it funny or an expression of a presentable point of view on a topical issue?The answer is no.This is shown by the unprecedented number of complaints we have received.

The initial responses from the editor and cartoonist showed no comprehension of the enormity of the insult and hurt.However, in the third apology from the newspaper, published on December 5, the editor said

On Tuesday we published a cartoon that now defies description.It was clearly significantly more than crass and insensitive.It was deeply offensive and it continues to cause significant distress.

The cartoon should not have been selected for the editorial page. It should not have been published. And we should have made this much clearer when we understood the impact of our decision.

We agree with that statement.The cartoon should never have been published.The initial apologies did not show a grasp of how deeply offensive it was.

Was the cartoon discriminatory?

There was a “them and us” quality about the cartoon. Two white New Zealanders walking out of a travel agency talking about another people. We have no doubt that this cartoon would not have been published if the 52 babies and children and the 10 adults had died in Oamaru for instance. The insensitivity of joking about a deathly epidemic is made worse by this quality of being invited to laugh at the plight of people who are seen as different from “us”.

We consider it highly discriminatory. It has a racist quality, being that other lives do not matter as “ours” do. It invites laughter at an epidemic that is causing illness and death, the implication being this is acceptable because the victims are “not us”.

Finding

The preamble to the Media Council’s Statement of Principles sets out two objectives that go head-to head in the determination of these complaints.

The Council is concerned with maintaining the press in accordance with the highest professional standards; and

There is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression …The Council will give primary consideration to freedom of expression and the public interest.

Freedom of expression plainly has bounds. With any right comes responsibility for how it is exercised. The editor has now acknowledged that this cartoon went far beyond what can ever be acceptable.The Media Council agrees. To publish this cartoon was a breach of professional standards so serious that it cannot be remedied by reference to freedom of expression.

Summary

We find that the cartoon was gratuitously hurtful and discriminatory.Despite the very high bar that must be crossed before a complaint about an offensive cartoon will be upheld, that bar was crossed with this cartoon, and by a significant margin.

The complaints are upheld.

We note the commitments detailed by the editor in his response.Although it was not immediate theOtago Daily Times has now apologised, and taken steps that go beyond any that lie within our jurisdiction to recommend. We hope that the report of the Deloitte review will be made public.

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