Case Number: 2670

Council Meeting: JUNE 2018

Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Headlines and Captions


The New Zealand Herald website ran an item on April 12, 2018 headlined “Better a dead Afghan civilian than a dead NZ soldier”.

This was an opinion piece commenting on Government’s announcement that it was going to hold an inquiry into a raid on an Afghan village where it was claimed civilians were killed by New Zealand troops.

The complaint against the headline was not upheld by a majority 7:2

The Complaint

Mike Dee complained the headline was grossly chauvinistic and racially biased.

It was also offensive to any person concerned with cross-cultural understanding and peaceful co-existence, offensive to NZ defence forces and offensive – and maybe threatening – to Afghani refugees living in New Zealand.

The headline’s face value was that one ethnic group was less worthy of living than another ethnic group.

While the paper stressed the article was an opinion piece, publicised opinion, especially about ethnicity, could have far reaching and devastating consequences. Telling examples of this included “Germans are the master race”, “Tutsi’s are insects” and “Kosovo is Serbian.”

The Response

New Zealand Herald senior newsroom editor Oskar Alley said the headline on the website’s homepage was accurate and reflected the following paragraph in Tim Dower’s column. “And you know what? It sounds brutal, but I’d rather it was one of them – even a civilian – than one of ours.”

The article was clearly presented as Tim Dower’s opinion, was based on fact and referenced the Government’s decision to hold an inquiry into a raid by SAS soldiers on a village in Afghanistan in 2010.

Dower was not advocating mindless violence against Afghani people, he was advocating that SAS soldiers’ right to defend themselves when being fired on in a war situation.

Reference to cross-cultural understanding and peaceful co-existence was an irrelevant expectation in a firefight in a war zone. To suggest the article posed a risk to Afghanis living in New Zealand was drawing a long bow as Dower’s comment could only be read in the context of a war zone.

Dower did not incite violence against the Afghani race in general. He noted that soldiers on deployment were placed in a situation of shoot or be shot. His comment was not anti the Afghani people per se, it was pro New Zealand soldiers.

The article was not racist. As to chauvinism, Dower was entitled to be patriotic and even prejudiced in defence of New Zealand soldiers serving abroad.

The Discussion

The article’s content was not the subject of this complaint. It was clearly marked as comment and as such was covered by Media Council principles which give primary consideration to freedom of expression and the public interest.

Mr Dee’s complaint was, however, about one of two headlines used on the article.

The requirement of Media Council principle 6 is for headlines to accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the item covered.

The first headline - “Better a dead Afghan civilian than a dead NZ soldier” - was on the homepage. The other headline which appeared when the article was pulled up by readers read: “Tim Dower: When it comes to military operations, I’m taking the word or our guys.”

Both headlines could be said to have accurately and fairly conveyed the substance or a key element of the column.

Homepage headlines are often deliberately crafted as “click bait” designed to draw readers in. Teasing and titillation is often used in headlines for this purpose.

However, Mr Dee complained that the “Better a dead Afghan…” headline was racially offensive. This is a matter for consideration under principle 7 which deals with issues of discrimination and diversity.

This principle recognises issues of gender, religion, race etc. are legitimate subjects for discussion but prohibits gratuitous emphasis on such categories.

The majority of Council members acknowledge that the original article headline “Better a dead Afghan civilian than a dead NZ soldier” is confronting and possibly even distasteful to readers.However, the provision set out in principle 7 requires publications not to place gratuitous emphasis on the categories previously stated above. The article referenced an inquiry into Operation Burnham involving the events of the raid on a village in Afghanistan and the inclusion in the headline “Afghan civilian” was expressed as an opinion with no gratuitous emphasis as per the categories set out in principle 7.

Complaint was not upheld by a majority 7:2.

Marie Shroff and Hank Schouten dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen (Chairman), Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.


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