RICHARD HALL AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTRichard Hall was upset at The Dominion Post'’s publication of a cartoon on May 14 2012 depicting Social Development Minister Paula Bennett with notorious Nazi concentration camp doctor Jozef Mengele. The complaint is not upheld.
The minister had just announced Government plans to offer free long term contraception to women beneficiaries and their teenage daughters. Controversy followed, and later led to Government denials about the possibility of forced sterilisations.
The Trace Hodgson cartoon was published in The Dominion Post in this context. It appeared on the Opinion page, in the space allocated to regular Dominion Post cartoonist Tom Scott. It depicted Paula Bennett in a dress emblazoned with skulls, introducing her "new consultant" Dr Mengele. He also featured, in Nazi uniform with blood dripping from a knife and a saw in each hand, saying he was looking forward to "cutting costs with some social development experiments". In the background, mothers and children were shown fleeing, under sinister flying black birds. One perched on a sign saying "Big Plans for Beneficiaries".
Mr Hall emailed his complaint to The Dominion Post on the day the cartoon appeared. In the email he said "one may not like Paula Bennett and the policies she pursues. However, this is no warrant to draw any parallel with her or her policies and the monstrosities perpetrated by Dr Mengele, whose activities resulted in numerous hideous deaths.
"The cartoon is often used to exaggerate, but this one is unclever, unfair, distasteful and highly offensive."
On May 29 he complained to the Press Council, saying he had not had any response from The Dominion Post. His complaint cited NZPC principles about accuracy, fairness and balance. "No comparisons can legitimately be drawn between any policies the minister may pursue and the monstrosities perpetrated by Dr Mengele. Mengele was involved in the agonising deaths of thousands in German concentration camps."
Dominion Post response:
Editor Bernadette Courtney replied to the Press Council on June 5, saying cartoons were an important part of any newspaper and used widely for social and political comment. Many were scathing and critical, and used to illustrate the cartoonist's viewpoint. "Our cartoons are opinion and sit in a section clearly marked 'opinion'.
"Not everyone agrees with them, of course. Our mailbag about this particular Trace Hodgson cartoon is an indication of that. Letter-writers' points were noted.
"Though I am sorry Mr Hall and others were offended, free speech incorporates the freedom to be cutting and unkind. I know that, for some people, Hodgson's cartoon was cutting and unkind. Some agreed with it. We therefore ensured that our letters columns reflected all views."
Mr Hall was dissatisfied with the editor's "it's merely opinion" response.
"Arguments about cartoons having a warrant to be 'scathing', 'cutting' or 'unkind' simply do not give warrant to ignore the dictate that there is a requirement for papers to be 'fair and balanced'."
Later he said he could see no warrant for the Hodgson cartoon about Paula Bennett. "No one can legitimately defend the comparison between Bennett's policies and the wanton monstrosities perpetrated by Dr Mengele. To claim otherwise is to display deep ignorance and dimness of thought."
Dominion Post's final comment
Ms Courtney said a strong distinction existed between news coverage which should be fair and balanced, and expressions of opinion which need not be.
"This is well recognised by the Press Council, which has delivered a string of rulings supporting this view, especially with regard to cartoons, including as recently as May this year (Case Number 2243, Canterbury Refugee Council against The Press).
"In that decision the Press Council again 'upheld the right of newspapers to publish cartoons which represent an extreme edge of public opinion' and noted 'cartoons are the work of one cartoonist, can express strong opinions and frequently cause disquiet to certain communities, or groups, or individuals'."
Mr Hall was entitled to his view, which others shared by writing to the Dominion Post letters column, but so was Hodgson who believed the comparison he drew was warranted.
Discussion and Decision
As noted by the editor, the Press Council has strongly supported the right of newspaper cartoonists to express their views, particularly when their work features on a page clearly labelled "Opinion". They can be provocative, thought-provoking, amusing, unkind or indeed offensive. Columnists have similar licence. Some in the Council considered that drawing a parallel with the work of Dr Mengele was nearly a step too far, given that cartoons should be based, at least, on a kernel of truth. The majority, however, felt that there were sufficient parallels in social and reproductive engineering to warrant the reference.
The NZPC's statement of principles notes that there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression, and that in dealing with complaints the Council will give "primary consideration" to freedom of expression and the public interest. However, that does not mean carte blanche in all cases. As noted in recent Press Council rulings concerning a Paul Holmes column, if the opinion is so extreme in substance or tone as to go beyond what is acceptable as opinion, a complaint can be upheld. This cartoon did not cross that threshold.
The council's Principle 4 (Comment and Fact) notes that a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment and opinion. "Cartoons are understood to be opinion".
Mr Hall's complaint cites another Council Principle, about the need for fairness and balance. However, as The Dominion Post editor correctly notes, that applies to news coverage and not cartoons, which are clearly labelled as "opinion".
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.