KEN ORR AGAINST THE PRESSKen Orr complained to the Press Council about an article published in The Press. He contended that the article denigrated women and offended public decency. The complaint is not upheld.
However members of the Press Council did express concern about the inadequacy of the warning and the size and nature of the photographs accompanying the article.
The article was a three-page feature published in the Mainlander section of The Press on July 4, 2009. The first page included “Warning: Story features adult sexual themes” on the bottom right hand corner.
It was titled “Pleasure from Pain” and subtitled “Inside the world of BDSM in Christchurch”. It presented a lengthy account of an investigation into the activities of members of Uncommon Bonds – a group for Christchurch’s BDSM community. (BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.)
The report was accompanied by a series of photographs, generally of participants in bound and sexually submissive positions.
No one was identified. Faces were pixillated or turned away from the camera and those interviewed were given pseudonyms.
Mr Orr initially complained to the editor of The Press, explaining his view that the newspaper had breached its own “high professional standards” by publishing this article.
He argued that it portrayed women as sexual objects, and thus offended public decency, and that bondage was akin to violence against women and could even be seen as “an extreme example of domestic violence”.
He suggested that because there was a lack of any editorial disapproval for the behaviour and for the “violence and degradation inflicted on women” the article could be seen as advocating BDSM practices.
In short, The Press had failed in its obligations as a family newspaper.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor, Andrew Holden, explained that court cases involving members of the BDSM community had initiated the report i.e. he believed there would be public interest in their activities.
He argued that although The Press entered family homes, it was written and edited for adults, for example, it sometimes contained stories and court reports which could be “brutal” for children.
He countered the complainant’s concerns about the ill-treatment of women by pointing out that the story described the submissive desires of some men as well. Further, the members of the group were willing participants.
Finally, he firmly rejected the notion that The Press by publishing any story could be seen as advocating the subject of the story, such as a report on prostitution.
When Mr Orr took his complaint to the Press Council he had little further to add. The thrust of his complaint was still based on his contention that the article, overall and in general, offended public decency.
The complainant suggested that although the women had consented, this should not lead to acceptance of their treatment. Consent could be by duress or by psychological conditioning.
In a final submission, he claimed that the warning given in the newspaper was ineffectual; it was too small and would not have discouraged children and teenagers from reading the article. In addition, the photographs accompanying the article were large and offensive.
Discussion and Decision
Mr Orr’s complaint rests on the premise that the newspaper breached professional standards by publishing grossly offensive material. Certainly the maintenance of the press in accordance with the highest professional standards is a key objective of the New Zealand Press Council.
However, it is difficult, for the Council to adjudicate on such matters. Obviously, what offends some readers will be completely acceptable to others. Further, notions of decency and taste are mutable and fluid, constantly evolving to reflect changing attitudes and values. What might have offended many a generation ago is much less likely to do so today. In short, there are no fixed and immutable standards when it comes to adjudicating on “offensive”.
In general, it is the editor who has to make a judgment call about material that might cause offence, in the interests of their newspaper or magazine. And, when editors cause offence, they risk losing subscriptions and readership.
At the same time, there have been examples when even the fluid, hazy lines indicating what might or might not be acceptable have clearly been crossed and the Press Council has upheld, albeit rarely, complaints on the grounds of decency and taste.
In an earlier adjudication, it noted that it would usually require “extreme circumstances involving gratuitous offence to a particular group” to uphold such complaints.
This does not apply to this particular complaint.
The material in the article was bound to be distasteful to some readers but the text itself is straightforward rather than sensational, perhaps too much information for some, but enlightening rather than lurid in its detail. This matter-of-fact tone is maintained throughout.
Although Mr Orr argued that the article denigrated women by describing bondage, it was clear from text and photograph that both men and women allowed themselves to be bound and dominated.
The Press Council also accepts the editor’s argument that there may have been some public interest in BDSM activities because of the preceding court cases in the city.
The photographs caused the members of the Council more disquiet than the text. They were large and explicit. Two which showed members of Uncommon Bonds in submissive poses and with (largely) exposed buttocks created particular concern.
Even the editor of The Press had noted in his submission that “it could be argued that they are unnecessarily descriptive”. However, he argued that “real” photographs rather than “modelled” photographs were needed to show “elements of the truth”.
It might also be argued that here the words of the article were enough to portray the truth and this was a case where illustrating that truth became fatuous. The photographs only had the effect of sensationalising the more straightforward, factual text.
The photographs might be distasteful but are they offensive? And even if they are offensive, do they reach the threshold of “grossly offensive”? Are they extreme enough to cross over that vague and uncertain border into the land of “gratuitous offence”?
On balance, and especially given the reasons above for not upholding Mr Orr’s complaint against the article taken as a whole, the Press Council thinks not and declines to uphold on this associated complaint against the photographs.
Although not sufficient to justify an uphold decision, there is one final matter where the Press Council is in agreement with the complainant. The warning was completely inadequate.
In order for it to have been useful, especially for parents of younger children, it should have been in much larger type, should have been placed more prominently and should have been published on the front page of that edition of The Press as well as being on the first page of the article.
Overall however, this complaint against The Press on the grounds of offending public decency and denigrating women is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Ruth Buddicom took no part in the consideration of this complaint