OTAGO MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT TRUST AGAINST CRITIC-TE AROHIMike McAlevey of the Otago Mental Health Support Trust has complained to the New Zealand Press Council that an article in the Otago University student newspaper, Critic, headed The Bum at the Bottom of the World, was among other things, inaccurate, discriminatory and in poor taste.
Mr McAlevey also complained that an associated item in a Bunch of Five$ feature in the same issue could incite to violence.
As well, he complained that an apology published by the newspaper about the initial article was insincere.
The complaint against the initial article is upheld. The complaint against the associated item is not upheld. Further, the Press Council has no reason to believe that the newspaper’s apology was not sincere.
The May 24 issue of Critic contained an article which purported to be a feature on some of what it described as Dunedin’s homeless, transients and vagrants, specifically characters said to be well-known to students called Speedy, Tony the Pony and Joan the Butcher.
A preamble to the article said: “Dunedin’s most well-loved celebrities are not politicians or sports stars, they are vagrants known to most as Speedy and Joan the Butcher. Thomas Redford spent time on the streets to find out the truth about Dunedin’s homeless, running into Tony the Pony and Smokey Robertson.”
The article included a rambling question and answer interview with “Smokey Robertson” in which the author implied he had supplied his subject with beer. He then went on to give further details of the three other characters and their habits, much of it in the way of second-hand or background information. He did not quote any directly. The article included drawings of the trio.
The overall impression the article and drawings conveyed was derogatory to the individuals alleging alcoholism or drugs, vagrancy or unusual or bad behaviour.
Further in the issue, in what is said to be a regular feature, five women students were asked the same five questions, one of which was “Fuck, marry or kill?Joan/Speedy/Tony the Pony?” The five students gave varying answers to the question.
About a month after publication, on June 22, Mr McAlevey complained to Critic’s editor-in-chief, Ben Thomson, by letter, saying the articles were “poorly written, poorly researched, in disgustingly bad taste, defamatory, discriminatory, and possibly inciting violence.” He said families and friends had been affected and he condemned plying possibly vulnerable people with alcohol.
There had been no attempt to establish whether the people were homeless or lacking income while the Bunch of Five$ item might be seen as inciting violence against people who were already subjects of abuse by students and others.
He described the article as “disgusting and inexcusable” and an apology in Critic would not suffice.
In his complaint to the Press Council dated August 5, Mr McAlevey said Mr Thomson had telephoned him on June 29 and said that as a result of complaints received, he intended to publish an apology in Critic on July 19. He asked Mr Thomson to send a letter of response but none was received. He had since seen the apology and was not satisfied it was sincere.
Critic’s Reaction and Response
In an editorial headed A Bum Note in the July 19 edition, Mr Thomson explained the article had been part of a package of stories about money following the budget.
“The article named three people, well known to many students, and perpetuated many of the myths and stories that circulated widely about them. It was unflattering to say the least and, upon reflection, it was uncaring, rude, obnoxious, and unnecessary,” the editorial said.
Mr Thomson said the newspaper had set out to explore some of the myths and stories that many students associate with the characters, “who are undeniably a part of any Otago student’s experience here in Dunedin. Online there are videos, groups and discussion boards dedicated to them.”
The author of the article had spoken to a medical student who had dealt firsthand with mental health patients and they had “invented” the “Smokey Robertson” character and conducted a mock interview. No alcohol was offered to anyone.
The editor thought it was obvious that the interview was made up but he was wrong in that assumption and apologised to anyone who felt misled.
He acknowledged the article had annoyed the local mental health community and others and some representatives had contacted them. In subsequent discussions, the editor acknowledged “in this case we completely misjudged where the line was.”
The complainants were advised a planned, more serious article on the topic had been brought forward and an apology would be offered at the same time.
“I apologise to the three individuals that were humiliated and hurt. And I am also sorry to our readers whom we let down. I can assure you we’ve all learnt from the experience.”
In the same July 19 edition, another writer, in an article headed Home is Where the Heart is, gave a fuller picture of the plight of the homeless.
The article corrected details about two of the people mentioned in the original article and quoted reliable and official sources about what being homeless meant, its effect on families, services and accommodation available and statistics.
The same issue also published three letters critical of the article, including one from the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and another from the Community Care Trust.
In his response to the Press Council dated August 20, Mr Thomson said the three people named were prominent members of Dunedin’s “transient” community and very well-known to students, with groups on Facebook with more than 1000 members where students shared stories and sightings, including videos on YouTube.
The article was not meant to be mean-spirited but rather a look at the personalities. All the information discussed was true.
The author was concerned that an interview could be seen as exploitative so it was decided to invent a character based on real-life cases the medical student had dealt with. At the time, they believed readers would realise that interview was made up.
The editor gave details of how they had responded to approaches from several official sources in the wake of the first article, and how they had agreed the article did come across as mean and uncaring and an apology was in order as quickly as possible, given that there would be a production break over the university holidays.
They had explained to those they met that Critic always tried “to tread the fine line between being offensive and writing in an ‘edgy’ manner that attracts student readers.”
Mr Thomson said he took issue with the accusation that the apology was insincere, “as I am indeed very sorry about the original article, and it should not have been published.”
He did not agree with Mr McAlevey’s complaint about the Bunch of Five$ item. The question complained of was one that was almost always asked and was based on a popular drinking game, and it was not meant to be taken seriously. To suggest it was encouraging violence against anyone was an insult to readers’ intelligence.
The Complainant’s Response
Mr McAlevey said the editor’s reference to transients again reflected poor journalism and discriminatory labelling. None of the people was transient. Nor was all the information published “true.”
The fictitious interview discriminated against people with mental health issues by portraying them as fair game for exploitation by plying them with alcohol in exchange for lurid information.
The article and the Bunch of Five$ feature were linked and, by associating the latter with a drinking game, Critic was “creating a dangerous mix of excess alcohol consumption, discussion of violence and demeaning portrayals of vulnerable people.”
He did not accept the published apology was genuine, questioning whether Critic had met with the individuals and tried to gauge the extent of the damage caused.
Mr McAlevey said he believed Critic was trying to be as rude and obnoxious as it could get away with, “and take some pride in their success.”
Student newspapers as a genre have a long history of provocation and even offensiveness, and that is to be expected in fiery crucibles such as universities. As well, their choice of language and in-your-face approach to issues are often not for the faint-hearted.
The Press Council acknowledges the genre and is prepared to make allowances for it, as long as essential principles are maintained.
This is not the case with the May 24 article. Making up an interview and including it in a larger article is a ridiculous concept, particularly when there is no explanation to readers that this has taken place.
An item on Dunedin’s homeless is, of course, an entirely worthwhile topic for any newspaper. Interviews with some of the homeless or apparently homeless would be justified for such an article. In the right context, there would be nothing exploitative with such an approach.
By publishing rumour and other details about three easily-identified people without giving them an opportunity to respond, or without making serious inquiries, Critic let itself down badly. The newspaper argues they are well-known. In fact, as the corrected facts revealed, they are not.
It did not help that the same issue included the names of the three people in one of its questions to the five students. Nevertheless, it seems a step too far to accuse the newspaper of perhaps inciting violence against those named in an item based on a ridiculous premise. It may be in poor taste and offensive. However, in the context of what the Bunch of Five$ feature covers in most issues of Critic, the question is an impossible premise, and it was not an incitement to violence.
The Press Council must also decide whether the responsible, follow-up article and the apology in the editorial remedy much of what was done incorrectly and badly in the first. In the correction and provision of information about a poorly-covered topic, it does, but not sufficiently to right all wrongs of the first.
The information and explanations provided in the second article were all available to the newspaper for the first article. They should have been provided then.
Mr McAlevey does not believe the paper’s apology is sincere –he argued from the start that an apology would not suffice. The editor assures the Press Council it was sincere.
While a personally-delivered apology to affected parties is an optimal result, as Mr McAlevey appears to suggest, there is no overall obligation for an editor to do that. In this case, the editor says his apology is sincere and the Press Council has to accept that. If the editor was not being sincere, it is difficult to believe he would have written as apologetically as he did.
The complaint against the May 24 article is upheld.
The complaint about the Bunch of Five$ feature in the same issue is not upheld.
The Press Council accepts the editor was being sincere in his apology.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.