REUBEN CHAPPLE AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY
On September 14, six days before the 2014 general election the Herald on Sunday published a spread across two pages under its Vote 2014 banner of "redesigned" political billboards poking fun at the political parties under the headline "Billbored? Comedians take over the campaigns." It said the billboards were put together by the team at TV3 satire and comedy show 7Days - an irreverent late Friday show that concentrates on political events of the week.
Reuben Chapple lodged a complaint, initially directly with the Press Council. Mr Chapple took this route because he said there was no point taking the matter up with the Herald on Sunday in the first instance since any investigation and subsequent retraction or rebuttal could not occur in the time frame - that is before the election.
However after advice from the Council that the complaint would not be accepted and a request he follow the procedure and lodge it with the publication he did so.
The substance of his complaint is that while the other redesigned billboards were satirical and would be seen by readers as humorous commentary the one aimed at the ACT Party, with a picture of its leader Jamie Whyte and the words "For a Whyte New Zealand", was not.
He said the "enlightened reader's thought bubble" was meant to register the word "racism" and the editorial intent was to convey a politically damaging view of ACT and its leader.
He said he had been involved with ACT since 1993 and it had consistently stood for one law for all, colour-blind government and equality in citizenship.
So it was highly inaccurate and misleading of the Herald on Sunday to state or imply, less than a week out from the election, that ACT was a racist party.
It was also a slur on Dr Whyte "who is married to Xainab, a black West African woman, with whom he has two children." He said Dr Whyte was not racist in his personal or political life. He also pointed out that former ACT leader Richard Prebble's wives were "non-whites" and his successor Rodney Hide was married to a Malaysian Chinese.
In response to the Herald on Sunday reply to him Mr Chapple said labelling the billboards as satire changed nothing and "a Leftist media had for years spun a carefully crafted narrative that opposition to Treatyism and insistence on colourblind government equals 'racism' " and that publication of the billboard deliberately fostered such a perception of ACT on the public mind.
The Herald on Sunday's Response
The newspaper's editor Miriyana Alexander responded directly to Mr Chapple and deputy editor Stuart Dye responded to the Council on her behalf after Mr Chapple went ahead with his complaint.
In summary their argument was that the headline labelled the billboards as satire and it would be clear to readers they were satire. They were not designed to create a false or misleading view of ACT or its leader. They were in fact "designed to entertain readers" and were one component of the newspaper's campaign coverage.
Addressing the principles raised by the complaint Mr Dye said the article called for special consideration as it was satirical and clearly labelled as such, that the headline and explanation clearly drew a distinction from fact, and that the technical manipulation of the billboards was clearly signposted as part of the satire.
Discussion and Decision
The Council rejects the complaint and agrees with Mr Dye that the headline, blurb and context made it clear the billboards were intended as satire and humorous. As such they should be given the special consideration envisaged in the Council's Principles
The spread is similar in effect to a cartoon and the Council has consistently upheld the rights of cartoonists to be provocative and noted they should enjoy considerable freedom in their role. That may even extend to causing offence to some people. Any offence taken in this case is likely to be in the eye of the beholder - supporters of different political parties may find a particular depiction uncomfortable while seeing the humour in others.
Given Herald on Sunday is a Sunday publication nothing it published the week before the election could be subject to clarification before polling day, but there is no evidence this was part of its thinking in publishing the piece on the day it did. It is noted there is an embedded plug in the spread for 7Days' election special the following Friday and the timing seems to have more to do with that than anything. By analogy with a cartoonist's work it relates the humorous and satirical view of the 7days team and there is no suggestion it necessarily reflects the view of the newspaper.
Satire often includes elements of caricature, exaggeration and implication and can draw on simplified views or people and organisations.
In the billboard aimed at ACT there is a possible pun on Dr Whyte's name that may invite readers to recall the controversy surrounding ACT's policies in areas related to the Maori seats, the Treaty process and others. But it could also be read as calling for a New Zealand with Dr Whyte as leader - an unlikely event given polling before the election.
Further it is no different in substance from the other redesigned billboards, despite Mr Chapple's attempt to distinguish them. In particular the one in NZ First colours reading "we don't like Asians but love old people" is similarly provocative and arguably more so.
Similarly Conservative voters supporting Colin Craig could argue that while he expressed an open mind about moon landings and chem trails he at no stage allowed for the earth to be flat.
But all of the billboards, including the subject of this complaint, are an expression of free speech, within the bounds of robust political debate and opinion in a satirical context.
The complaint is not upheld. However three members of the Council expressed some discomfort with the particular billboard and the personal reference in it.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.