KERRY BOLTON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3030

Council Meeting: APRIL 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Misleading
Photographs
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori

Overview

[1] Kerry Bolton has complained about a story published on Stuff and in The Dominion Post on March 20 and in theKāpiti Observer on March 25. The Dominion Post and Kāpiti Observer headlines readStudents racially taunted for te reo, haka and the online Stuff Kura students racially taunted for speaking te reoMāori and performing haka at council meeting.

[2] The article was based on a complaint by Te Kura Kaupapa o Te Rito to the Kāpiti Coast District Council about a council meeting held to discuss the Te Urihi – the Gateway, and the gifting of the name Te Urihi. The complainant attended the meeting.

[3] The complaint at the centre of the story, sent by tumuaki (head teacher) Heni Wirihana Te-Rei, claimed Year 12 students from the school were subjected to racial taunts at the meeting. The students said “a handful” of those present had made racist comments, including “Why do we need to listen to this monkey language”. Te-Rei wrote they endured “blatant racism” including questions why te reo was being used and being told to sit down during a haka. During the haka, an unknown person moved a chair knocking one of the teachers in the head and a student in the back, a move “bordering on assault”, she wrote.

[4] The story also quotes Te Rununga o Toa Rangatira chief executive Helmut Modlik (who wasn’t at the meeting), Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan (present, but didn’t see anything) and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon (not present). They are all critical of the behaviour of some at the meeting.

The Complaint

[5] Mr Bolton’s complaint is best covered under Principle 1 – Accuracy, fairness and balance and Principle 12 – Photographs and Graphics. The complaint covers the balance of reporting, which we will consider under Principle 1 and the “misleading use” of a photo in the online version, which we will consider under both Principles 1 and 12.

[6] Mr Bolton says the story lacks objectivity and contains a one-sided view of what happened at the council event. He says the article has created more ill-will in the community than any he’s seen during his 25 years in Kapiti.

[7] The tension at the meeting stemmed not from “a racial issue” but from concern about the ‘Gateway’ “that many feel is extravagant, unnecessary” and frustration at members of the public being excluded from the meeting room.

[8] Mr Bolton says the newspapers failed to report other versions of what happened during the meeting. He says the actions around someone moving a chair stemmed from the cramped space and the lack of seating for members of the public there to debate the gateway centre. Such versions were publicly available as soon as a day after the meeting on “online community news service”, Waikanae Watch, and the reporter has been “negligent” in not seeking alternative views in the weeks since.

[9] Providing online comments and even an affidavit from others at the meeting, Mr Bolton claims members of the audience rose to join the haka and in doing so, chairs were forced against one or two older members of the audience, hurting them and giving them “no room to escape”.

[10] He says some of those who joined the haka were adults and the “children” from the kura who led it were Year 12 students; “young male adults of robust build”. The subsequent online allegations of abuse of children is unfair.

[11] The view was encouraged by Stuff’s selection of a 2014 file photo to illustrate the story. It showed Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito students performing a haka, but the students in the picture appear to be Intermediate age “boys and girls of about 10”. They were not Year 12 students.

[12] The article’s focus on “racial taunting” has sparked outrage, name-calling and threats on community online platforms.

[13] In a further email, Mr Bolton has sent letters gained via an OIA request showing six complaints about the meeting, some about the racism reported in the story and some about the older folk in the audience who allegedly had chairs pushed against them during the haka.

The Response

[14] Dominion Post editor Anna Fifield responds to the complaint by first pointing out that Mr Bolton is a former secretary of the anti-immigration National Front. It is described on Wikipedia as a “white nationalist” group and Ms Fifield says the paper has written stories about his far-right views. She says his complaint is vexatious.

[15] Ms Fifield says the paper spoke to “several” people present, including “impartial” mayor K Gurunathan who condemned the heckling, and drew from the account of the meeting written immediately afterwards, by Heni Wirihana Te-Rei. “We have no reason to doubt the veracity of their accounts”.

[16] She points out that the story makes clear that they could not identify those who allegedly made the racist comments and had no way of identifying them to seek comment. She rejects Mr Bolton’s view that Waikanae Watch is an "online community news service." “It is a blog with posts written from a particular perspective and makes no effort at impartiality”.

[17] Ms Fifield suggests the ill-will Mr Bolton describes stemmed from the racist behaviour of some in the audience.

[18] On the photo complaint, she says the paper did not have a picture of the meeting and so used a file photo, clearly labelled as from 2014. “A reasonable reader would know that the photo does not show the performers at the meeting. My point to Mr Bolton remains: whether they were year six or year 12, they are still legally children and still enjoy the protections afforded to children.”

[19] Finally, she says she offered Mr Bolton the opportunity to write a letter to the editor, but he refused.

The Decision

[20] Clearly there is more to the story of what happened at the council meeting and the complainant is correct to point out there are contrary eyewitness accounts of what happened to those reported. The issues raised at the meeting seem to have been of significant importance to the local community and claimed incidents surrounding the haka, abuse and assaults may well warrant more reporting, but that is for an independent media to decide.

[21] While the complainant has gone to great lengths to back-up his version of events, including an affidavit and OIA request, it is unreasonable to expect a local reporter to go to such lengths to back-up a few details of what happened at a council meeting, when the essence of the story was a complaint on behalf of some school students who suffered racial abuse.

[22] Contrary to the complainant’s position, this article is not a report of the council meeting. If it was, there could be grounds for concern about balance. But it is an article written a month after the meeting and is about the complaint made by the kura. The claims made by the tumuaki speak to awful and unacceptable racism that is of course newsworthy. Naturally then, the concerns of the tumuaki and students are front and centre. The claims about what happened with the chairs are peripheral to concerns about the abuse Te-Rei says her students endured. And while the passage of time means the reporter had time to check the claims made, it’s not reasonable to expect her to be aware of these particular arguments going on online.

[23] The size or appearance of the students is immaterial. As young people at a public event it is reasonable to expect they should not be subject to abuse.

[24] Having said that, Stuff’s use of the 2014 photo is very sloppy and concerned the Media Council. Ms Fifield is correct that it is clearly labelled and apparent that this is not the group who performed on the day. We also note that the very first words in the article are “Year 12 students”, which provides vital context. However seeing those young faces at the heart of the page, a casual observer could easily be left with the impression that those “students” referenced in the headline were much younger and more vulnerable than they were.

[25] The public reasonably has a special concern for young children and the impression left by the photo was quite different from the reality, both in the age of the students and the events that occurred. The use of this photo prompted anger online that specifically mentioned the age of the children, so the Media Council’s decision on this question became a very marginal call.

[26] Further, it is odd that Ms Fifield claims the mayor as an impartial observer, given his political investment in the gateway issue and the fact the he had said publicly he had not seen the events in question. Ultimately, the story relies on a letter of complaint written by someone relying on first-hand accounts, but who seemingly wasn’t at the meeting. It’s legitimate to report that letter of complaint, but in discussing what happened at the meeting perhaps Stuff might have done better than simply taking a single letter at face value.

[27] While the online abuse received by seemingly innocent bystanders to events at the meeting appears ugly, the responsibility for that online outrage does not lie with Stuff or the Media Council.

Decision

[27] While more care could have been taken with the misleading photo in particular, there was enough context to show the reader the young children pictured were not those at the event. The complaint under Principles 1 and 12 arenot upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Christina Tay took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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