MICHAEL HARCOURT AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMESMichael Harcourt complained about a column by Michael Laws which was published in the Sunday Star-Times on January 15, 2012. He claimed that the column contained examples of racial stereotyping and transgressed the Press Council’s principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; to comment and fact; and to discrimination and diversity.
His complaint is upheld, with two members of the Press Council dissenting.
Laws’ column was headed “Cases made it a week for the ferals”. It was firmly captioned “Michael Laws – Viewpoint”
In the piece, Laws traversed various crime stories that had been widely reported in the media over the previous week. He linked the stories to a theme he has often argued – that the increasing number of “feral families” poses a real danger to New Zealand society.
He cited examples: a “Maori kid” arrested for burglary and violent sexual assault on a five year old girl, “Maori mamas” caught in the act of shoplifting, and the “Featherston ferals” – a group of kids reported to be robbing, vandalizing and intimidating the residents of that town. He suggested that one factor that linked these various images is that “they are all brown, all Maori”.
The column was in Laws’ typical style: forceful, punchy, opinionated.
Mr Harcourt complained first to the newspaper, but dissatisfied with the editor’s response, made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
He acknowledged that newspapers represent a wide range of viewpoints and that Mr Laws “usually gives voice to a perspective that should find an outlet in mainstream media”.
However, he argued that this particular column crossed the line beyond what was acceptable and became “deeply offensive bigotry”. For example, Laws had taken some trouble to find and collect stories that linked violence with Maori and had deliberately created a link in readers’ minds between “feral” and Maori.
He took particular exception to the references to the Featherston children because in other media reports Mr Harcourt had seen no description of the children’s ethnicity. He claimed that Laws seemed to have assumed that they were Maori simply because they were a group of young trouble makers. Such an assumption was a clear example of prejudice and stereotyping.
If there were no factual evidence that the Featherston children were Maori, then the principles of the Press Council relating to accuracy (and, consequently, fairness), to the need for a clear distinction to be maintained between comment and fact, and to discrimination had all been broken.
Finally, he stressed that he was not complaining about Mr Laws, he was complaining about the newspaper for publishing a piece of “racial stereotyping”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor acknowledged the thoughtful tone of the complainant’s criticism, especially the recognition that newspapers give voice to a range of different views. He also readily accepted that Laws’ views were unacceptable to many.
However, he could not accept that the column breached Press Council principles, as the comment about the Featherston children was Laws’ genuine opinion and based on information available to the columnist.
He had raised the matter with Mr Laws and had been assured that “the composition of the teen Featherston ferals was overwhelmingly Maori”.
Later, when the complainant continued to argue to the Press Council that accusing a specific ethnic group on the basis of “honestly held opinion” rather than substantiated evidence was racial stereotyping, the editor decided to make some checks himself.
He told the Press Council that he had contacted the Featherston community and made calls to police, neighbours and community leaders and had concluded that “Mr Laws is correct” ie in his claim that the group were predominantly Maori.
He also pointed out that the newspaper had published many letters hostile to the opinions expressed by Mr Laws.
Discussion and Decision
The preamble to the Press Council’s Statement of Principles states that “there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression” and also that “in dealing with complaints, the Council will give primary consideration to freedom of expression . . .”.
Further, the Council has previously defended the right of Mr Laws to express his views. On that occasion (ruling No 1078), the Council noted that “it is a columnist’s right to express an opinion in print, however provocative, and it is part of the function of newspapers to provide social and political commentary and a forum to debate issues”.
The complainant himself acknowledges that the “presentation of contrasting views is a critical aspect of democracy”, yet, as Mr Harcourt also argues, “freedom of speech does not mean that absolutely everything goes”.
The Council concurs. A writer, even of an opinion piece, cannot deliberately mislead readers, perhaps by ignoring or omitting known facts, or by wilfully misrepresenting the facts.
If Mr Laws had claimed that the Featherston group were Maori without any evidence for such a claim, or worse, claimed that the group were Maori when he knew they were not, then the complainant would have a very strong case, especially in regard to the Council’s first principle, “publications . . . should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by commission or omission”.
Here, the Council accepts the assurance of the editor that his personal checks have shown that Mr Laws was substantially correct in his comments about the Featherston group and there is consequently nothing to suggest that the columnist has deliberately misled readers in that regard.
But Mr Laws went further than making provocative comments. He also wrote that "there is an antisocial destruct specifically within Maoridom that shows no sign of abating."
Condemning an entire race for the misbehaviour of the comparative few mentioned in his column is a considerable stretch.
In Principle 6, the Council says “Issues such as race … are legitimate subjects for discussion if 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.”
Gratutious means in that sense uncalled for, unwarranted and lacking good reason. Mr Laws' thinking goes no further than his assertion that Maoridom suffers from an "antisocial destruct". He offers no reason for such a statement and common sense and the indisputable fact that Maori are not all as he describes means the comment is unwarranted and uncalled for. Had he said "there is an antisocial destruct within some in Maoridom," the complaint could not have been upheld.
He didn't. Accordingly, the complaint of discrimination is upheld.
Two members of the Council, Keith Lees and Stephen Stewart, considered that the single comment “there is an antisocial destruct specifically within Maoridom that shows no sign of abating” fails to reach the threshold to breach the principle relating to discrimination. It is, of course, a sweeping generalization, but it could also be read that Laws means there is an “antisocial” thread somewhere among the many interwoven strands that make up the greater Maori realm and that is far from expressing vilification or denigration of an entire race.
There is a clear tension between the principle that stresses the right to freedom of expression and the principle that affirms that various minority groups should not have to suffer from discrimination. Those voting for a not uphold on this complaint prefer that freedom of expression is maintained, unless the level of racial commentary becomes insistently insulting or even hate-filled and hateful.
That is not the case here and if there is a perceived intolerance and lack of compassion in Laws’ writing, the dissenters believe that is best countered by writers opposed to Laws who might argue with more sympathy and more tolerance. Laws should be rebutted certainly, but not banned.
In short, those reading Mr Laws’ column are best left to decide how much (or how little) credibility they give it.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.