MEL WHAANGA AGAINST NATIONAL BUSINESS REVIEW
Case Number: 2656
Council Meeting: MARCH 2018
Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent
Publication: National Business Review
Balance, Lack Of
1. Mel Whaanga complains that a piece published by National Business Review on February 2, 2018 breaches the Press Council’s principles notably Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and 5 (opinion). The piece, published as the Sir Bob Jones “Bits and Bobs” column, was headed “Time for a troll”.
2. The column began with the statement that “[w]e should introduce a new public holiday: Maori Gratitude Day, in place of the much disdained Waitangi Day”. It proceeded with the sentence “[a]s there are no full blooded Maoris in existence it indisputably follows that had it not been for migrants, mainly Brits, not a single Maori alive today… would have existed”.
3. The columnist went on to advance the argument that such a public holiday would enable “Maori to bring us breakfast in bed or weed our gardens, wash and polish our cars and so on, out of gratitude for existing”. The piece concluded with the suggestion Maori “tangibly express their gratitude for existing thanks to European immigration by a day’s voluntary labour for non-Maori folk …”.
The complaint was not upheld by a majority of Council members 7:4.
4. The column caused immediate controversy upon publication. There was widespread media attention given to the piece, to the social media reaction and to the promotion of an online petition calling for Sir Bob to be penalised through the withdrawal of his knighthood. Sir Bob responded assertively, via sources not allied to NBR, in defending his views. He claimed they were entirely satirical. Media reported Sir Bob’s threat to sue the organiser of the petition over her claim his remarks amounted to “hate speech”.
5. The complainant says the column “[demonstrated] negligence, poor judgement and an anile culture withinNBR”. The complainant claims NBR “tolerates” the Jones’ negative view and that the comments are “out of touch with Maori and mainstream NZ”. The complainant maintains the Jones comments were “racist“.
6. The newspaper responds by referring to two aspects. It says the piece was withdrawn from its on line platform within a short time following publication. It explains the withdrawal by saying that while the column created “spirited debate and criticism of Sir Bob Jones” it quickly became apparent that people were taking sentences “in isolation and posting them on social media”. This treatment removed context from what was a satirical piece.The newspaper’s more important argument is that the column was clearly opinion and falls under the principle of freedom of expression. The column was indeed satire. It could not be taken seriously.
The Majority Decision
7. The Press Council was divided on its views on this complaint, a reflection of the difficulties faced by many jurisdictions in dealing with what is loosely called “hate speech” and to what extent it should be limited when freedom of expression is regarded as a fundamental right in a democratic society.
8. Sir Bob Jones has a history of writing provocative columns making outlandish and often offensive comments about different groups of people. Examples include racial stereotyping, a call to ban all women drivers and the high number of obese people he had observed from his office window.
9. His opinions are often extreme and not to be taken seriously and this is clearly the case with “Time for a Troll” when he suggests a new public holiday, Maori Gratitude Day, where “Maori bring us breakfast in bed or weed our garden, wash and polish our cars or so on.”
10. NBR described the column as satirical and Jones has acknowledged it was “tongue-in-cheek”. Satire is a format which gives wide license to provoke, mock or make a point by gross exaggeration as is frequently the case with cartoons.Cartoons of grotesque caricatures are often published and it is widely accepted that they do occasionally “push the boundaries”.
11. The Council is not bound by legal precedent but it noted a Human Rights Review Tribunal decision (recently upheld by the High Court) which dismissed complaints against two Al Nisbet cartoons.
12. The cartoons, published in the Marlborough Express andThe Press in 2013, depicted Maori and Pasifika as negligent parents pre-occupied with alcohol, cigarettes and gambling at the expense of their children.
13. The tribunal said that although the cartoons were insulting and offensive they were not likely to bring Maori and Pasifika into contempt or excite hostility to them.
14. The High Court upheld the Tribunal’s decision but urged editors to reflect on whether they should publish cartoons that insult a racial group. Freedom of expression was a crucial consideration in the case.
15. Freedom of expression is the most important of the principles that the Press Council is required to take into account when determining a complaint. A key role of the media is providing a platform for the free expression of opinion and provided the material is clearly identified as opinion there are few restrictions on the content of opinion pieces.
16. The Principles require opinion to be founded on fact and there should not be gratuitous emphasis on issues such as gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability. There is, however, no prohibition on insulting or offensive material.
17. The column made the claim there are no full-blooded Maori and if it had not been for migrants there would be no Maori alive today. These contentions and ill-founded statements are clearly not to be taken seriously and the column was mean, malicious and infantile. It is not surprising the item drew an angry response.
18. Readers do not have a right not to be offended, but publishers disregard the tastes of their readers at their peril and need to think about them before publication. We note the column was subsequently pulled fromNBR’s web site and that it will no longer be publishing Sir Bob’s columns. We consider this an appropriate response to the justified public outrage at the item.
19. The complaint was not upheld by a majority of the Council - Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.
The Minority Dissent
Four members, Chris Darlow, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu and John Roughan would have upheld the complaint believing it clearly exceeded a reasonable boundary of free speech on the subject of race. Putting aside the accuracy of the claim there are no “full blooded” Maori alive today, which the complainant contested, the minority found it hard to follow the contention that had it not been for migrants to New Zealand there would no Maori today. The writer appeared to be straining for a reason to suggest Maori should grovel in gratitude to non-Maori for their survival, a suggestion the four members found gratuitously offensive.
They disagreed with the view that this was excusable as “satire”. The important principle of freedom of speech was not served in their view by humour that depends on giving deliberate, gratuitous offence to a racial minority for the amusement of the writer and those who share his racial attitudes. This was an egregious example of free speech being used for no purpose beyond cruel amusement. While the newspaper quickly removed the column from its website when it realised the offence it had caused, the piece should not have been published.
The NBR’s withdrawal of the column underlines a useful principle that free speech on the subject of race ought to stop short of humour that deliberately sets out to hurt. The four members hope all editors will reflect on this case and recognise that gratuitous racial offence is unworthy of responsible journalism.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.