KATE DAY AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTA complaint about the "Beast of Blenheim" has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.
Complainant Kate Day called a billboard drawing attention to a news report in The Dominion Post of February 22, 2013 and headed "Beast' back behind bars' inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair. She was also upset at some words in the report, which said Stewart Murray Wilson had been" dubbed the Beast of Blenheim".
Ms Day said the fact that Wilson had previously been "dubbed" with the term by the news media was an unacceptable reason to continue its usage. The injury of this name-calling was not only to Wilson himself. "As a reader I am personally offended by public material defaming another individual."
Editors could use derogatory phrases about people in perpetuity unless the Press Council intervened. It was vital to protect individuals from such vilification. "Editors should not be permitted to coin a dehumanising name, then quote each other to perpetuate it."
Her complaint was not motivated by any sympathy for Wilson, "if anyone is worthy of a derogatory label it is Wilson". However, even in such an extreme case, it was inappropriate, unnecessary and harmful to perpetuate a dehumanising label. Dehumanising someone was a way to incite hatred, and vilification in the news media was a dangerous thing to allow.
She noted that of all the newspapers reporting on Wilson at this time, only one (the New Zealand Herald) did not use the term "beast". Vilification by newspapers was not only inhumane, it misinformed members of the public, disrespected an audience capable of reading facts and making judgements for itself and created a public perception that it was all right to turn en masse against an individual.
Labelling someone was particularly offensive when the term became equivalent to a name, and Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney had said the "Beast" term was now shorthand for Wilson and his crimes. However, Ms Day suspected selling newspapers was the prime reason for using the phrase.
The editor said the newspaper was perfectly entitled to rely on the phrase as it was an accurate reference to the nature and location of Wilson's convictions "and its use was coined by a victim who speaks with direct knowledge of Wilson's criminal actions."
The newspaper was entitled to use the phrase in a street poster to promote content in that day's paper. This would only be misleading if the poster promoted an article that did not appear in the paper. The Press Council had regularly ruled that headlines had to be read in context with the report they promoted. The same expectation should apply to billboards and the poster text was entirely accurate in relation to the article. She did not accept Ms Day's claim that the report was inaccurate.
Referring to Ms Day's claim that the phrase dehumanised Wilson, Ms Courtney said his own offending had created this situation. She said it was not the media's role to “rehumanise” a man convicted in one of the most appalling cases in New Zealand's history. Ms Courtney said she should know, as she reported on his trial.
Citing examples, she said it was very common for the media to use nicknames, especially in headlines, to convey a large amount of information, context or background with an economy of words. The Beast of Blenheim was a short phrase which provided context to readers about Wilson and his criminal record. It also meant the media did not have to regularly re-report specifics of his offending over 22 years, especially in relation to bestiality.
Wilson's case was indeed unique, partly due to the nature of his crimes and also because he was released at the end of his sentence and the justice system could not prevent this. The Parole Board considered he was at high risk of reoffending.
In reference to the unbalanced claim, the media was not obliged to consult criminal offenders on how they wished to be portrayed publicly. The information was sourced from evidence produced in court. However, "given that Wilson joked to our reporter that he was considering trademarking the phrase, if its use does not particularly bother him then I do not see an issue."
Ms Day had acknowledged that the phrase had been used so often that the average reader had come to equate it with Wilson. She agreed. "It is therefore more accurate for the poster to refer to "Beast", because the surname Wilson is extremely common in this country."
Discussion and Decision
Press Council members acknowledged that the complainant presented a well-argued case and that some sections of society would agree with her concerns. However, the phrase had gained such currency and general acceptance that it was now difficult to "put the genie back in its bottle".
In relation to the Principles the headline accurately reflected the article and substance of the article accurately reported the facts and therefore the claim of inaccuracy does not apply. Equally, there can be no issue with the accuracy of the term “Beast of Blenheim” itself.
The Principle of Discrimination does not apply.
The complaint was essentially about unfairness and lack of good taste. Opposition to the media description notwithstanding, even Ms Day admits that "if anyone is worthy of a derogatory label it is Wilson".
It is very common for the media to use nicknames, especially in headlines, and a number of previous examples can be quoted such as the "Parnell Panther", "Mr Asia", "Bassett Rd Machinegun Murderer", "Jack the Ripper", and the "Angel of Death".
It may be that in some instances the use such a label would be unfair, for instance years after conviction, sentence served and a blameless life having subsequently been achieved. This is not such a case. Wilson continues to deny his crimes, is still on parole and currently back in jail for having breached the terms of his parole.
In general terms, the Council would caution against the use of dehumanising labels. However in this particular case the Council found that although the term could be considered dehumanising its use did not reach the high standards required for an uphold.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.