The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The Dominion Post by Eamon Sloan of Elsdon about a cartoon by Tom Scott which was alleged to be “no more than a dirty joke”.

Mr Sloan’s complaint to the Press Council was triggered by a cartoon published on 6 February 2006, which depicted two male characters, apparently sheep farmers or musterers. An insert draws attention to a recently released film, Brokeback Mountain, which achieved some notoriety by raising the question of homosexual love. One man is saying to the other, “Two guys out on the plains, herding hundreds of perfectly attractive sheep, get lonely and hit on each other? I don’t get it…”

The Complaint
In an e-mail to the editor Mr Sloan contended that this “was more than a bit over the edge.” He noted that he had previously pointed out Tom Scott’s “proclivities for smut and sexual innuendo…. The latest effort enters forbidden territory to recommend bestiality as an alternative for lonely shepherds.” Writing again to the editor on 23 February Mr Sloan observed that while a cartoonist may be allowed some ‘poetic licence’ this should not be “exploited so as to cause offence”. He noted that the newspaper, in the section advertising ‘Adult Entertainment’, printed a statement expressly reserving the right “not to print any words or sentences …. unsuitable to our readership” and suggested that the “same standard” be applied to Mr Scott’s cartoons.

The editor of The Dominion Post replied on 1 March declining “to censor Mr Scott’s work” and noting, “As with our columnists (he) is given wide licence to bring his imagination and skill to the issues of the day.” He acknowledged that “this may not always be to everyone’s taste, but good cartoons are often provocative.”

Not satisfied with the editor’s response Mr Sloan wrote to the Press Council on 15 March. He did not accept the editor’s defence of Tom Scott’s abilities to deal with “the issues of the day” contending that “Advancing a case for bestiality is hardly a burning issues of the day. The entire subject is in no way humorous and I would say the less we hear about it the better.” Adding that his complaint “turns on the issue of decency and particularly as it relates to cartooning in a family newspaper”, he asked that the Press Council make “a finding that the cartoons [the reference is to the cartoon of 6 February and an earlier effort of 21 October 2004] in question … contain unnecessary and offensive sexual innuendo.” The earlier cartoon is outside the time-limit for complaints to the Council and was not considered.

Making the point that the Council’s Statement of Principles makes no specific provision for the matter of giving offence, Mr Sloan cited Principle 8 to do with Discrimination, warning against placing of gratuitous emphasis on gender, religion, etc. (Mr Sloan submitted that the New Zealand Council should add to its Statement of Principles, the Australian Press Council’s Principle # 6 which refers to “material …. expected to cause offence.” This suggestion is not further pursued here.)

The Press Council notes that Mr Scott’s cartoons appear as a feature of the editorial page in The Dominion Post, directly beneath a sub-heading “Opinion”. The page almost always carries a major opinion piece as well as the day’s Letters to the Editor and the Editorial. There is no question but that this is a forum for the expression of differing points of view, for putting into the public realm individual slants on issues and events. As such the page in every way fulfils the duty of a newspaper to provide for the free expression of opinion.

It goes without saying that cartooning is integral to this vital function and purpose in a newspaper. Equally there is no doubt that the views and interpretations of matters in the public eye of cartoonists, as other contributors to the page, will not satisfy everyone or be to the taste of all.

The Press Council does not set itself up as an arbiter of taste or of what meets or does not meet ever-changing and evolving notions of decency and acceptability in the public discourse. There are lines which should not be crossed. But it is the prerogative of editors to make judgments on such matters, in the interest of their newspaper. The Press Council has consistently ruled in favour of editors’ responsibility for their editorial page. It would take extreme circumstances to do with risk to the public interest or gratuitous offence to a particular group, for the Council to rule otherwise. This is not one of those cases.

Mr Sloan’s complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Penny Harding, Ruth Buddicom, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Alan Samson, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and John Gardner.


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