KIA MAU AGAINST THE GISBORNE HERALD
Case Number: 2805
Council Meeting: September 2019
Verdict: Upheld in part with dissent 7:4
- The collective Kia Mau complains about the publication, in the Letters to the Editor column, of various postings to the website of the Gisborne Herald. The postings were in response to an article about action by Kia Mau against the 250th celebrations of the first voyage of Captain Cook on the Endeavour to New Zealand.Kia Mau had launched a petition to stop a replica of the Endeavour from coming to Aotearoa.
- The publication complained of was a page in the print version of the Gisborne Herald headed Letters to the Editor.There were six postings published, all of which had followed the article in the Gisborne Herald online, which had described in neutral terms the content of the petition.The petition in strong language described racism in New Zealand as beginning with the arrival of the Endeavour, and the killing, maiming and torture of Maori by its crew. The petition claimed that the visit would re-entrench harmful colonial fictions.
- The postings that were published in various ways took issue with the petition and its sentiments and were supportive of the trip of the replica Endeavour.There were varying degrees and types of objection to the petition expressed in the postings.
- The complaint raised a number of issues:
- Although under the heading of Letters to the editor, the published statements were not letters to the editor, but on-line postings following an article and publicity about the protests.
- There was a breach by the Gisborne Herald of its standard statement for letters to the editor, that letters under a nom de plume had to pass a “higher bar of acceptability”.
- The content of the postings was “uninformed, callous, inflammatory, and insensitive”.The last posting in particular showed racist sentiments.
- The response from the Gisborne Herald described the postings as being on the “opinion page”.The need for a name behind the posting was lessened by Kia Mau being an anonymous body. The editor would have preferred not to have published the last posting, but he edited it, and it filled a space with a view “unfortunately fairly commonly held”.
- It was stated in the response that the views of Kia Mau wound up a lot of people, and their views in the postings were being expressed in response to that.
The “not letters” complaint
- The Press Council Statement of Principles requires accuracy, fairness and balance.Headlines and captions must accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover. We are concerned here with the headline.
- The headline was Letters to the Editor.The postings were not Letters to the Editor.They were electronic postings, written after a reader had gone through the article on-line.They were presumably typed in to the “Join the Discussion” box that followed the article.
- They are therefore of a somewhat different character to Letters of the Editor.Letters to the Editor whether by email or not, can be expected to be set out as a letter, with names addresses and the usual letter form.Readers of the letters’ columns know the space is carefully curated by an editor or senior journalist with readers’ interests in mind. They do not expect the same standards to be applied to online comments. Postings are more spontaneous and informal than what is expected of letters. They can be expected to be less considered. They are by their nature more instant, and more likely to be of a throwaway nature. The difference between Letters to the Editors and postings is therefore a difference of substance.
- However, we acknowledge that over the last fifteen years there has been a transition in the way readers communicate with newspapers, which reflects the advent of the electronic age. The traditional stamped and posted letter as the primary mode of word communication is a thing of the past. “Letters” are most often now sent by email. The distinction between emails and postings to a newspaper is more blurred.
- It would have been better practice for this section of the newspaper to be headed “Comments” or “Postings”.However, we are not prepared to uphold the complaint on this basis. We do recommend to the Gisborne Herald that it change this heading if publishing posted comments is to be a regular practice
- We are also surprised that all the postings were anonymous, or featured only single first or second names, rather than full first and second names. The Letters to the Editor section states that parties should “always” include full names and contact details.It is also stated “If you use a nom de plume, there is a higher bar for acceptability”.The Gisborne Herald, treating as it did the postings as Letters to the Editor, did not appear to follow this policy. Even if the Gisborne Herald had received names and addresses, noms de plume were used for some of the postings.
- The Council has in the past issued decisions where it has been held to be bad practice to not publish the names of letter writers. It has been said “The vast majority of newspapers now require correspondents to demonstrate the courage of their convictions by publishing names”.However, it has also been held that text messages are not in the same category, being more spontaneous and informal.
- It is the view of all members of the council that it is good practice for published letters and comments to be from named senders. There should be a requirement for a name, phone number and address before publication. A nom de plume, which entrenches anonymity, should not be accepted.
- We accept again that there is a process of evolution taking place in relation to online comments. Principle 5 provides that “Letters for Publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and the public interest”.Leeway is therefore given to editors in this area. Given that there is a transition taking place, we have decided on this occasion not to uphold on anonymity.
- We record that we put to one side the suggestion that the lack of anonymity was justified because of the anonymity of Kia Mau.First, Kia Mau is not anonymous.It is the name used to identify a group, the details of which can be easily found on the web. Such names are regularly used to identify a number of persons who have the same interest or view.Second, even if the petition organiser had been anonymous, that would be no reason to dispense with the good practice of requiring letter and posting writers to identify themselves.That is not a concept that contains any element of reciprocity.It is just good journalistic practice when letters and postings are published on any topic in any context, to identify the writer.
Bar of acceptability
- We deal with the merits of the last posting by “G” later in this decision.In our view the opinions expressed in the other postings apart from the “G” letter were within an objective level of acceptability.They were setting out a point of view, sometimes in exasperated and strong language, but were not abusive or personalised. It was not accurate to call them Letters to the Editor, but as postings of differing opinions, they were in their substance within the bounds of acceptability.
The last posting
- This last posting read:
Don’t be such hypocrites. Hand back your cars, house, mobile phone, fridge, TV, computers, in fact everything modern civilisation has given you.
It’s not about Captain Cook. What happened after his visit is not Cook’s fault. Accept, as people are trying to do, and move on.
It if wasn’t Cook, it could have been the Japanese, Vikings, Germans of Chinese. We should think ourselves lucky.
- The allegation in the first paragraph effectively was that Maori would not have any of the benefits of technology developed over the last one hundred and fifty years without the arrival of the Endeavour and what followed. The allegation in the last paragraph was that they were lucky not to be colonised by a worse group. These sorts of views are regrettably often expressed and are technically relevant to the issue of what arose from the arrival of The Endeavour.
- However, they are based on an absurd and racist premise; that the developments of the industrial revolution, which took place long after the arrival of The Endeavour, would not have been utilised by Maori, presumably because of some inherent defect on their part; that they are inferior. In our view, the principle of freedom of expression cannot excuse the decision of the Gisborne Herald to publish such an abusive comment in its Letter to the Editors section. The statements by “G”, particularly the second sentence in the first paragraph, go beyond an expression of opinion.The statement is insulting, and has the racist overtone of “you would be nothing without colonisation”.
- The response of the Gisborne Herald in relation to this posting, made to Maori Television, and repeated in the response to us, was:
“My main issues were with the final response by ‘G’ – I would have preferred not to run that, but it filled the final space on the last page, I edited it a fair bit and what was left had a small amount of value as a view that is, unfortunately, fairly commonly held”.
And this to Kia Mau
I reject your assertion that I was providing a privileged position to those comments – rather I was dealing with what could be considered the fallout from promoting your petition. You seem to lack awareness that the positions you take wind up a lot of people, from racists right back through to people who could never be considered that, and including many of your own people who think your approach is entirely unhelpful. But I think you do know this.
- We do not consider that the fact that there was a need to fill a space to be any excuse for the publication; to the contrary it is entirely the wrong reason to justify publication of an otherwise unacceptable statement. The suggestion that it was necessary to show the depth of anger in the responses, was a perfectly good reason to justify the inclusion of the other postings, which did not feature racist abuse, but not this one.
- The view of “G” had already been expressed online. It was taking that view and publishing it under Letters to the Editor that was wrong.The fact that it was printed as a Letter to the Editor would have led a reader to think it was sent as an email.
- The effect of this ruling is not to muzzle what was said online, but to say that it was wrong and gratuitous to take a racist and insulting expression of opinion from the discussion postings, and place it in a Letters to the Editors column. It was discriminating by being gratuitously racist under Principle 7.
- The various postings save for the last posting could have been gathered together under a heading along the lines “Postings in response to our article on the Kia Mau petition” or under a “General postings” or “Comments” section of the newspaper. This would have been good practice. It is not good practice to publish anonymous comments, or comments under noms de plume.However, because of the evolutionary phase that exists in relation to electronic communications to newspapers, we do not uphold this complaint.
- The majority of the Council upholds the complaint against the last posting. It should not have been published in the Letters to the Editor by the Gisborne Herald.
- Four members of the Council Tim Watkin, Rosemary Barraclough, Tracy Watkins and Craig Cooper, dissented from this decision and would not have upheld the complaint.
Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins