Case Number: 2823

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Discrimination


[1] On August 24, 2019 the New Zealand Herald ran an online story titled “Jacinda Ardern dons hijab as she fronts Islamic Women’s Council national conference.” The conference was held at Zayed College for Girls in Mangere, Auckland, and according to the article the Prime Minister delivered a speech to crowd of “about 250.”

The Complaint

[2] On August 25, Joris de Bres made a formal complaint to NZME through its online complaints system.He argued that the headline and parts of the article were in breach of Principle 7 of the Media Council, Discrimination and Diversity, the main reason being that the article placed undue emphasis on the Prime Minister wearing a hijab. When he complained to the Media Council, he also argued that the article was in breach of Principle 6, Headlines and Captions.

[3] Mr de Bres argues the headline focuses on what the Prime Minister was wearing rather than her message.The first eight paragraphs of the article focus on what she is saying at the conference but the next five paragraphs report on her “donning a cream coloured hijab” and that she wore a hijab when she visited the Muslim community in Christchurch following the 15 March attacks.

[4] This was the NZ Herald’s only report on this conference. Given the degree of reporting on the PM wearing a hijab, repetition of comments from two individuals over five months earlier, and emphasis on the hijab in the headline, Mr de Bres considers that undue emphasis was given to the hijab as a religious symbol and that the article was in breach of Principle 7.

[5] In his final comment, Mr de Bres reminds the Council about the sensitivity of representation of Muslims in the media following 9/11 and also the March 15 attacks.In this article, there is a case of “othering” in which the Muslim community are not treated as normal members of our community and media need to be aware of not focusing on symbols of religious difference to evoke Islamophobic responses. There might not be egregious overt religious and racial prejudice but there is a subtle and yet more powerful form of discrimination in the types of articles like the one complained about.

The Response

[6] Stuart Dye, Editor, Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday, responded to the complainant on August 27.In that original response, Mr Dye rejects the assertion the story is in breach of Principle 7.The story is “fair, accurate and balanced and there is no gratuitous emphasis on any issue of religion.”

[7] The PM’s decision to wear a hijab is considered newsworthy given the worldwide debate it sparked when she wore one after the March 15 attacks. The editor also rejects any breach of Principle 6 as the headline combined the two key elements of the story – what she said and what she wore.

[8] Mr Dye asks how coverage of the Prime Minister adopting the dress standards of the audience she is speaking to could in any way be considered inciting hostility.

[9] The fact that two other media outlets did not refer to the Prime Minister and other ministers wearing a hijab is irrelevant.Jacinda Ardern made headlines around the world when she wore a hijab in March. It is of public interest that she did so again - both in NZ and internationally. And, as Mr de Bres notes, the reaction then was overwhelmingly positive.

[10] The hijab colour description is not discriminatory on the grounds of gender. This was not some flowery description of a politician's outfit, simply the colour of an item the politician was wearing for a very specific reason.

[11] In claiming this story "dredged up the voices of controversy" Mr de Bres ignores the fact the story also reported Ms Ardern's wearing of the hijab "was praised around the world.Both sides of the background give context and we ignored neither”, the editor said.

[12]Mr Dye finds "that was then, this is now" in relation to Ms Ardern wearing a hijab after the Christchurch attacks less than six months ago a counter-intuitive position. “Ardern, as we reported, referred to the events of March 15, telling the meeting the past months had been exhausting because the community was still picking up the pieces. Ardern's response, and our reporting of it, remain as salient today as in the immediate aftermath of March 15.”

[13] Mr Dye rejects Mr de Bres' assertion "it can only be interpreted as an attempt to reignite the debate" about wearing the hijab.

[14] Mr de Bres' complaint maintains that the article placed undue emphasis on Ms Ardern’s hijab. This is belied by the fact that the first reference in the article appears in the 10th paragraph – hardly an over-emphasis. The headline accurately refers to Ms Ardern donning a hijab as this was one of several talking points in the article and reflects strong international interest and discussion about Ms Ardern’s sign of solidarity with the Muslim faith.The article does not contribute to Islamophobia.

The Discussion

Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity

[15] The Principle is clear here.The key point is whether there was gratuitous emphasis on any category mentioned in the Principle, in this case, religious and minority groups and gender.Previous Council decisions have also made it clear that all the categories within Principle 7 are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are “relevant and in the public interest.”

[16] The question for the Council is whether the five paragraphs in the article about the Prime Minister wearing a hijab are relevant and in the public interest or whether there was gratuitous emphasis placed on it.

[17] Whilst Mr de Bres has a view that the emphasis on the hijab could be interpreted as igniting the debate from months previously about the appropriateness of a PM wearing one or not, the Council is of the view that this was not the effect. As the article notes, it was “praised around the world”.

[18] We agree with Mr Dye that the description of the hijab was not gender discrimination.

[19] The Council understands the points raised by the complainant about subtle connotations within media reporting creating a situation where a group of our society are seen as “others” and not part of our community.However, the article also highlights the same message the PM would have given to any other women’s conference within this country – women’s leadership, how can central and local government work together to support women leaders, and how can we support [Muslim] leaders into politics.The emphasis is not on difference but on how difference can be overcome – in this situation the PM wearing the hijab is one way of bridging any divide that might exist.

[20] The Muslim community in Aotearoa is a small one. However, following the 15 March attacks, it became much more prominent through the outpouring of love it received from fellow New Zealanders. Whilst the complainant notes that many people might think it normal that Ms Ardern dons a hijab, and therefore why report on it, there are still some within our society who do not see it as normal.The Council takes the view that the media reporting of the Prime Minister of New Zealand adopting a practice of the Muslim faith such as wearing a hijab does not emphasise difference but rather has the effect of saying ‘we are them and they are us.’

The complaint is not upheld.

Principle 6 – Headlines and Captions

[21] Again the Principle is clear – headlines, sub-headings and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the article. The Council agrees with Mr Dye that the headline is reflective of the substance of the article.Where disagreement lies is in the substance of the article.The complaint not upheld.

Mr de Bres’s complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Jonathan MacKenzie stood down to maintain a public member majority.


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