PHILIPPA EMERY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDThe complaint by Philippa Emery against the New Zealand Herald is not upheld.
The NZ Herald, on 26 June, published an opinion column by Sir Bob Jones headed “Roll up, roll up – see the skinny freak”. The gist of the column was that where once fat people featured in circus freak shows, they have now become so common that a ‘freak show’ today might feature a skinny person.
In typical un-PC style, Sir Bob commented on the high number of obese people he observed from his Wellington office block, and stated that in April he had advertised a ‘freak show’ featuring a slim woman and an untattooed man. He exacerbated the ‘freakishness’ of the woman by claiming that she was a pretty Bulgarian, and in his opinion these were not common. Later in the column he referred to “stunning Chinese beauties” in Auckland pursuing a “genetically pre-determined requirement of non-stop frock and shoe purchasing”.
Despite the ridiculing of various groups in the column, his point was that obesity is largely self-inflicted and if people monitored their food intake, obesity could be rectified. He supported this perspective with a case study of a young man who had achieved just this kind of result.
Philippa Emery complained to the Herald on 26 June, indicating that the article was “offensive and extremely inappropriate”. She claimed that this kind of ridicule might inspire such people to self harm or suicide.
The editor responded that the piece was provocative but the columnist was within his rights to express his opinion. The editor considered that Ms Emery’s claims about possible consequences were “extreme” and she had not acknowledged Sir Bob’s point, that people should take responsibility for themselves. He invited her to join the debate.
Dissatisfied with his response, Ms Emery forwarded her complaint to the Press Council stating that the column breached principles of discrimination and diversity. She referred to specific descriptors used by Sir Bob in the column, such as “human hippos” and argued that the editor’s reply did not recognise the hurt the article had caused.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor reiterated the points that he had initially made to Ms Emery. He stated that Sir Bob was well known for his “irreverent, anti-PC and provocative sense of humour” and the column should be read in that light. There was a serious underlying message, that people needed to take responsibility for themselves. He did not accept Ms Emery’s contention that the column could incite bullying, hatred or self-harm. He contended that “Columnists should be entitled to challenge the orthodoxies of the day even if some people regard what they write as rude and offensive”.
Ms Emery continued to disagree with the editor’s comments, maintaining that the column used language that was “hateful” and encouraged people to ridicule and shame overweight people. She contended that such language encourages bullying and is wrong and hurtful.
The editor, in turn, reiterated that opinions may be robust and hurt people’s feelings, but aim to stimulate discussion. People who were offended should join the discussion rather than attempt to shut it down.
Sir Bob Jones’ column was clearly ironic, satirical and overtly non-PC. Nevertheless, there was a serious message in the article, even though it was expressed in terms that Ms Emery found bullying and offensive.
Columnists are frequently offensive in their comments as they seek to provoke discussion. Accordingly, while the Council acknowledges the distaste that Ms Emery feels for the sentiments expressed by Sir Bob, it does not accept that these are sufficient, in the circumstances, to uphold her complaint.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.