KAREN KNIGHT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Karen Knight against the New Zealand Herald about an article entitled “Fallon says Italian team behaved like little girls” which appeared in the New Zealand Herald on June 22 and on the nzherald.co.nz website from the same date.
The article followed the historic Soccer World Cup 1-1 draw between the All Whites and the then-reigning world champion soccer team Italy and quoted All White striker Rory Fallon. Fallon’s comments that the Italians were ‘diving around like little girls” and “rolling round like girls” were made within the context of him being pulled up time and again by the referee for using his elbows in aerial challenges and his booking within 15 minutes of the game beginning. Fallon’s view was that histrionics by the Italians made a meal of the challenges of playing the All Whites and were aimed at conning the referee.
The headline: “Fallon says Italian team behaved like little girls” was a theme repeated three times in the article including by two direct quotes: “The Italians were diving around like little girls.” and “The fans want to see a good game and they don’t want to see people rolling around like girls.”
Karen Knight wrote to the editor of the New Zealand Herald (cc to the Press Council) on June 26 lodging a formal complaint about the headline and three repetitions of ‘erroneous and offensive gender-stereotyping’ statements and identified the phrases relating to the Italians behaving like girls as the offending statements.
She described the analogy as tasteless, irrelevant and without foundation as female soccer players, in her view, generally don’t roll around. She argued that the “unfortunate reporting will again reinforce the already macho societal view …that girls can’t compete in field sports, are weak, unsuited and unsporting.” She claimed that inference was that the Italians cheated in order to win and that meant girls had to cheat to win. She felt female soccer players and supporters of New Zealand deserved better than tacky, off-hand treatment and deserved a prominent apology from the New Zealand Herald.
Deputy editor, David Hastings, replied to Ms Knight that the expression is common currency and that the inferences she drew went far beyond what Mr Fallon meant and what most people would have understood. However, he agreed some people would see it differently.
He suggested a Letter to the Editor would have been the appropriate response rather than a call for an apology even though time for such a letter to be published had then passed. He noted that such letters had been received and published.
Ms Knight advised the Press Council she was in no way satisfied with the response from Mr Hasting saying it did not address her concerns and sought to down play and trivialise the issue. She likened the comments to Paul Henry’s regarding Susan Boyle and those of Paul Holmes about a former UN Secretary-General. She felt it showed contempt and disregard for females and particularly female soccer players.
For the New Zealand Herald, Mr Hastings responded that his treatment of the complaint was appropriate to the issue and argued that the report was an accurate record of what someone said about an event of high public interest.
He rejected that there was a valid comparison between remarks made by high profile broadcasters and, though some people did find Fallon’s remarks offensive, freedom of speech meant that there needed to be freedom to speak even if the comments might give offence to some.
In her final submission Ms Knight argued that the comments actively encouraged bigotry and prejudice against all women and particularly sports women and were inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. She referred to Principle 1 relating to these issues. She also argued that the comments promoted hateful and outdated stereotypes and required Principle 6 (regarding discrimination and diversity) to be considered in the adjudication. Ms Knight felt Fallon had chosen girls as an analogy for his ridicule and the New Zealand Herald had given high profile to his comments. She asked what would be the response if the word “Maori”, “Samoan” or “Muslim” were substituted for the word “girls”. She anticipated that would provoke a serious backlash.
While the Press Council essentially agrees with the complainant that the remarks were sexist and denigrating to women, in the highly charged and competitive arena of international sporting contests such foolish remarks are often made without any intention to give offence or indeed any awareness that some might potentially find them offensive.
A well-argued Letter to the Editor would have exposed the remarks as mindless prejudice and perhaps raised the awareness of leading sports people about the risk of giving offence should they fall into stereotypical language.
A complaint to the Press Council is a bridge too far. For the New Zealand Herald reporter not to have used Fallon’s exact words would have required a degree of censorship that seems unnecessary in this day and age when women have a strong view of themselves and are robust in accepting that some, perhaps less evolved males, still fall back upon outdated stereotypical prejudices to express themselves.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.