EMMA BIRKETT AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 2989
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2021
Verdict: Not Upheld
1. This is a complaint that a story describing a person as “old white, privileged and entitled” was racist and a breach of Media Council Principle 7 relating to discrimination and diversity.
2. The complaint is not upheld.
3. Stuff published an article on December 8, 2020 headlined Wine judge Jim Harre’s latest critique leaves a sour note for Canterbury winemaker.The story was about comment left on a Facebook page by international wine judge Jim Harre.
4. The Facebook message read: Hi, I tried your wine at Moiety Restaurant this evening. The worst Pinot Noir I’ve tried in years – give up. The wine I tried was disgusting! As an international wine judge who lives in Waipara, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Find a new hobby.
5. The article led off with the winemaker’s reaction that she was shocked to receive the “condescending, patronising and misogynistic” message.
6. The article also reported comment from restaurant owner Sam Gasson who was alerted to the Facebook message Mr Harre had sent from his restaurant table. He said Mr Harre started ranting about the wine as he left and Mr Gasson said he was angry at Mr Harre’s “old white, privileged and entitled behaviour”.
7. The story went on to report Mr Harre’s view that in his opinion the wine was undrinkable.
8. Emma Birkett complained that the description of Mr Harre as “old white, privileged and entitled” was racist and ageist. She noted Stuff’s recent apology to Maori for a long history of racist coverage and stereotyping and reference to a European in this manner was offensive, biased and unhelpful.
9. Press editor Kamala Hayman said the “old white, privileged and entitled” comment was a quote from Mr Gasson. This was his opinion. Stuff’s reporting of the comment did not mean it supported his comments.
10. She added that “discrimination” against a group which is dominant in the power structure of society is not equivalent to discriminating against the powerless. Criticism of white, middle-class men – or challenging those who are most influential and powerful – is not the same as criticising those from minority ethnicities or low socioeconomic backgrounds who have little power or influence.
11. She argued the Media Council’s principle 7 allows reporting opinion on age, race and colour so long as they are not given gratuitous emphasis. In this story the words were well down the article and not referred to in the “angle” or headline.
12. Ms Birkett said there was no way Stuff would have defended publishing a similar comment that negatively stereotyped a group that was of colour and was likely to have called it hate speech.
13. Condoning criticism of dominant groups and refusing equivalent publication of minority groups made for biased reporting. How about treating all races/groups/whoever with the same level of respect and the same level of freedom of speech?
14. She also argued that treating a minority group with kid gloves was itself racism and in her view Maori would take offense at that.
15. She said Ms Hayman’s argument was that it was “ok to discriminate against one group but not another.”
16. Ms Hayman said there was no equivalence between the discrimination experienced by Maori and the criticism of Pakeha based on the colour of their skin. Discrimination against a group which is dominant in the power structure of our society is not equivalent to discrimination against the powerless.
17. She did not accept Ms Birkett’s claim that treating a minority group with kid gloves was racist in itself or that “woke special treatment” was harmful and disempowering. Minority groups in New Zealand had suffered under generations of structural and institutional racism and affirmative action which seeks to redress the balance does not favour them with special treatment but aims to restore equity of opportunity.
18. She added that if the Media Council upheld this complaint - that a quote criticising someone for their white privilege was a breach of its principles – it would be a retrograde step for the media and all who live in Aotearoa.
19. This complaint has been considered under Principle 7 (discrimination and diversity) which states:Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.
20. This was a story that could be described as a storm in a wine glass, a flurry of intemperate comment from a wine judge, a wine maker and a restauranteur.
21. It was a verbally-bruising exchange in which all the protagonists were given their chance to have a say and we are not aware that any of them have complained about the reporting.
22. However, Ms Birkett, not a protagonist, objected to restaurant owner Sam Gasson’s description of wine judge Jim Harre as “old white, privileged and entitled”.
23. Ms Birkett makes a point that a similar racial descriptor would not be acceptable if Mr Harre had been of another race and that this shows bias. She says the words “old white” are a negative stereotype and it is ridiculous for Ms Hayman to suggest it is okay to discriminate against Europeans but not against Maori.
24. Ms Hayman did not go that far but she does argue that the power structures in New Zealand mean there is no equivalence between discrimination experienced by Maori and criticism of Pakeha based on the colour of their skin. It is not the Media Council’s role to engage in sociological debate, but the Council acknowledges it is a widely accepted view that racism involves power as well as ethnicity.
25. The Media Council’s main remit is to uphold freedom of expression. Fundamental to that is allowing for robust debate in which people can express critical views in public, as was the case in this story.
26. Principle 7 states that issues of age and colour are legitimate subjects for discussions where they are relevant and in the public interest but should not be given gratuitous emphasis.
27. It has been accepted practice in the news media for many years not to gratuitously refer to somebody’s race. It causes unnecessary offence especially when story is a negative one, for example when somebody is appearing in court.
28. Stuff’s defence was that it was merely quoting Mr Gasson, the quote was not highlighted or headlined, it was well down in the story and it was therefore not given gratuitous emphasis. We accept this was so.
29. The phrase “old white, privileged and entitled” may be harsh but it is not unfair in the context of a lively story in which all gave as good as they got.
30. It is accepted that calling someone “old white” has less of a sting than a similar descriptor would be to somebody – for example, Maori or Pasifika - who is likely to have experienced direct or indirect racial abuse and discrimination.
31. The quoted words were not Stuff’s opinion or an endorsement of the views expressed. There may be circumstances where publishing someone else’s opinion is a breach of Principle 7 but the Media Council does not think such circumstances exist in this case.
32. Freedom of expression must be balanced against the extent to which any description of race or age can be seen as placing a gratuitous emphasis on those features. The discrimination line is not crossed in this instance.
33. The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.