Case Number: 3353

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Discrimination and Diversity

Ruling Categories: Editorial Discretion / Freedom
Offensive Language
Taste Lack of
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori


[1] On 24 August 2022 the Otago Daily Times (ODT) published a story online, A tapu is lifted at Parliament. Mr Mann complained that the article breached Principle (1) Accuracy, fairness and balance, Principle (2) Comment and Fact, and Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

[2] The article was part of the ODT’s 100 Years Ago series. It republished a report from 1922 of the opening of the Native Affairs Committee room, describing the room itself, those present and the ceremony that took place.

The Complaint

[3] Mr Mann complained, saying the article “contains racist characterisation of individuals, cultural practices, artistic practices, and te ao Māori (the Māori world)”.

[4] He was particularly concerned about the description of the haka. It was offensive because of the use of the word “savage” and the contrasting representation of those who did not take part as civilised, he said. Other examples of racism were describing the whakairo (carvings) as “grotesque” and what Mr Mann said was the mocking tone of the article.

[5] The ODT had republished it without critical context, repeating the harm. Noting that it was from 100 years ago was insufficient, Mr Mann said.

[6] Mr Mann complained under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, suggesting that there should have been critical context or a right of reply to the article, and suggesting the ODT could have talked to the descendants of the author or academic commentators. He also cited Principle (4) Comment and Fact, as he said the story did not clearly discriminate between opinion and fact. The opinion label was insufficient, he said.

[7] He also complained under Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity. Publishing the article without context emboldened the “present-day hate movement”, he said. If those with racist beliefs read racist statements such as those in the article without critical context, this would be likely to normalise their beliefs. He said the language and attitudes in the article met the definition of dangerous speech, quoting Susan Benesch’s Dangerous Speech Project and The Disinformation Project. Other media outlets around the world had apologised for historic racist coverage.

[8] “The article was just as harmful in 1922 as it is today. We must begin to do the hard work of acknowledging that we caused harm and that we have continued to cause harm, offering apologies, dedicating ourselves to change the way we act so that we do not cause harm in future,” he said.

[9] Mr Mann said a satisfactory resolution would include a public apology as acknowledgement and as a first step to beginning reconciliation with those communities and individuals harmed directly 100 years ago and again at this time through republishing the article.

The Response

[10] The ODT responded, saying the paper agreed that viewed through today’s lens the excerpt was inappropriate and expressed an ignorant and offensive view of Māori custom from 100 years ago, in spite of it being published under the clear heading 100 Years Ago. While they could not change what happened 100 years ago, the paper agreed it did not have to give it more prominence today.

[11] The ODT’s editor said he did not think republishing the excerpt would fuel any present-day "hate movement". It was just as possible it would give readers pause for thought about how far tolerance and respect for all cultures has come in the past century, he said, noting that the paper would be more careful in selecting its "100 Years Ago" columns in future.

[12] The ODT also apologised for the delay of nearly a month in replying to Mr Mann, saying the staff member who was assigned to reply had gone on a break.

Further correspondence

[13] In his final comment, Mr Mann noted that the ODT had published a further “100 years ago” piece headed Māori treasures in British hands. It contained descriptions of the remains of tūpuna, including mokomokai (tattooed preserved heads), which reduced tūpuna to tradable goods, he said. Republishing this article without critical context was harmful and offensive, as set out in his original complaint. It showed a pattern of breach of standards and it was clear that the ODT saying they would be more careful in future was insufficient. When asked to respond to the complaint about the second piece, the ODT did not address this directly, but said they had discussed the first story with the Allied Press kaiwhakatika hourua Ken Tipene and more widely in the industry and those people did not have a problem with the republication of the material.

The Discussion

[14] The council notes at the outset that Mr Mann’s complaint is that the material was published without explanatory context; he did not argue that it should not have been published at all. The ODT does not agree with Mr Mann’s suggestion that it could incite hatred in the present day. The paper suggests it could allow people to see how far respect for other cultures has come in the past century. It is the Council’s view that both these assertions could be true – some readers could see it as an interesting historical piece that showed attitudes at the time; other readers might see it as validating their racist views.

[15] Regarding Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance: while the ODT could have broadened the article by offering alternative opinions about the piece, the Council believes this was a matter of editorial discretion. The historic piece is not the kind of controversial matter that requires balancing perspectives to be supplied and it is the editor’s prerogative to decide whether to embark upon a broader piece about historic racist material printed in the paper, as some media outlets have done. The ODT could have added a disclaimer saying that this was historic material reflecting attitudes from the past or run an opinion piece reflecting on the issues raised and while this might have been a wise course of action, again the Council sees this as a matter of editorial discretion.

[16] The article was marked as an article from 100 years ago and was clearly the opinion of the writer at the time, so there is no breach of Principle (4).

[17] Principle (7) Discrimination and diversity states: “Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.” It is difficult to see how the publication of this piece of historic reporting breaches this standard.

[18] The Council notes that the complaint has generated useful debate about a complex issue and has prompted the ODT to consider and discuss its position. However, in summary, while the publication of the 100-year-old article, with its outdated and racist overtones, without explanation or context, may seem insensitive and out of touch with today’s values, it does not breach any of the previously stated principles.

[19] Decision: The complaint is not upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Jonathan Mackenzie, Scott Inglis, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, , Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.


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