STEPHEN WATSON, JAMES GIVNAN, BRUCE ROY, ANDREW MURPHY, CHRISTINE NORRIS, RACHEL COX, MARIA ROBINSON, MARK BROWNING, ANTHONY HAN
Case Number: 3398
Council Meeting: February 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Children and Young People
Comment and Fact
Discrimination and Diversity
- The Media Council has received 11 completed complaints about an article headlined Tusiata Avia can't wait to make you uncomfortable and an accompanying poem titled “The 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand’ by poet Tusiata Avia. The article and poem were published on Stuff and in the Sunday Star-Times on February 19, 2023. The Media Council also received 13 incomplete complaints that won’t be considered in this ruling but which shows the strength of opinion about the poem in particular.
The article is a profile of renowned Pasifika poet Tusiata Avia ahead of a stage adaption of her Ockham-winning book, The Savage Coloniser.
The poem is from the book, which was published in 2020. Stuff featured both the text of the poem and a video of the poet reading her work.
- The explicit language in the poem is not bleeped, which is out of line with Stuff’s usual editorial policy. A warning that the video contains explicit warning appears onscreen in bold before the poem begins.
- The poem can be described as a violent fantasy, in which the poet addresses explorer James Cook from the view of a colonised woman, using Cook as a personification of colonisation and its worst aspects, such as murder and rape. The poet abuses Cook, describes hunting down “white men like you” and imagines Cook as a modern day criminal abusing a woman on the street in Christchurch, where Ms Avia grew up. It imagines a group of Pasifika women attacking the modern day Cook with a knife.
- While it plays no part in our decision, made independently and according to our own principles, the Council notes the Classification Office and Human Rights Office have also received a significant number of complaints about the publication of the poem.
- The 11 complainants share many of the same concerns. Across the board, the complaints are offended by the poem and accuse Stuff of inciting racial violence and hatred by choosing to publish it. However the complainants also raise specific points that we will cover below.
- While a number of principles were listed in the complaints only four are relevant in this case. First, Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance says publications are at all times bound by accuracy, fairness and balance. In articles of controversy and disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view, but exceptions may apply in long-running issues. This applies to the feature. Second, Principle (3) Children and Young People says editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of children and young people. Third, Principle (4) Comment and Fact says opinion should be presented as such and the facts on which those opinions are based must be accurate. This applies to the poem.
The most pertinent principle, however, is Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity. It says:
“Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.”Where discrimination raises issues without being gratuitous, the Council can turn to the commitment in its preamble to uphold “the standards of ethical journalism”.
- Complaint Stephen Watson compares the views in the poem to those expressed in Germany (presumably a reference to Nazism and the Second World War). He is critical of “sexual and racial violence being distributed in a public forum” and says it incites racial hatred.
- James Givnan says the poem is “racist violence dressed up as art”. He says Stuff would not dare give such a violent voice to, say, poor white people disaffected by the effects of globalism, yet it defends “explicit violent racial revenge fantasies…providing they come from an acceptable ethnic source” and “political persuasion”. Givnan says “better examples of art could be found” and Stuff “encouraging these ideas” only fosters division. He admits he can “remove himself” from poetry he sees as “dangerous” but asks if Stuff would take any responsibility if anyone acted on these fantasies.
- Bruce Roy calls the poem highly offensive and uncivil, possibly hate speech. In this time and place it, like Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto justifying the 2019 mosque shootings, could be seen as incitement to murder. He says “Stuff needs to be reminded that our children have access to this publication”. He adds the facts are questionable but does not say to which facts he is referring. “The short video, whilst factually quite inaccurate, was also racially charged using language that could easily promote or incite violence.”
- Andrew Murphy says Stuff is “race-baiting” by publishing the poem and the article achieves no purpose except promoting the poet’s show. He compares the publication to picking a scab on your knee; leave it alone and it will heal. Stuff is picking at the scab of racism and in doing so he fears the wound will get infected.
- Christine Norris says behind the façade of art are words filled with malicious intent describing white males as "James" to be murdered like pigs. These words are racist in the extreme and inspire hatred for another race and sex. “This is a hate crime,” she says. “One’s speech or beliefs can very clearly have an influence on others with radical intention and marginal moral compass, with devastating consequences”. Norris also quotes the Human Rights Act, but that exceeds the jurisdiction of the Council.
- Rachael Cox expresses “a genuine concern that the publication of this poem will stir up racial hatred and lead to the radicalisation of people at a time when there is significant work underway to improve Aotearoa's social cohesion”. She points to the mosque attacks of 2019 and says many New Zealanders have been working to bring communities together. Publication of this poem acts contrary to those efforts and crosses the line between artistic expression and hate speech.
- Maria Robinson is horrified that Stuff is endorsing the views expressed in the poem and that Ms Avia is receiving taxpayer funding. Debate is fine “but encouraging murder and violence and dehumanising other people while laughing about it is not ok”.
- Mark Browning describes the poem as disgusting hate speech and say by publishing the poem Stuff is endorsing such violence. He asked if Stuff would publish a similar poem if he had written it about violence done to brown girls. “If I had written this as a white male I would be taken apart!”
- Anthony Hanning describes the poem as a racist rant about one of history’s greatest explorers. “The race baiting and clear incitement of violence is something that has no place in New Zealand”.
- Mike Hennebry says publication of the poem is highly offensive and clearly designed to instil fear and racial hatred. “It is easily the most offensive, vile and divisive piece of 'poetry/journalism' I've ever seen”. He compares it to Isis beheading videos and calls it “borderline terrorism... I cannot believe you are encouraging and supporting this kind of rhetoric. This is wrong no matter how hard her upbringing was in Christchurch!”
- Tom Frewen is “deeply offended” by the poem and critical of the journalist’s uncritical approach to Ms Avia in the feature. He asks for an explanation as to why Stuff has abandoned its own editorial policy by removing the obscenities in print but allowing the poem to be read in full on the video. “Does Stuff extend this freedom of expression to everyone or just brown skinned female poets?”
- Stuff’s response deals with the overall concerns raised by all – or most – of the complainants and then by some of the more specific complaints.
- Stuff says it’s committed to presenting a range of voices to its audience and, recognising that some would be offended in this case, was careful to provide context for Ms Avia’s poem. Specifically, the headline and standfirst drew attention to the fact Ms Avia can make some feel uncomfortable, specifically on issues of race.
- The story begins by stating audiences can be shocked into silence by Ms Avia’s work and the poet herself acknowledges their bravery, especially Pakeha willing to hear her point of view.
- Ms Avia has been awarded the Ockham NZ Book Award for poetry; is an Arts Foundation Laureate; has a play that has been running for 20 years, recently off-Broadway; and another show ready to be released at the Auckland Arts Festival. New Zealand artists enjoying that level of success are often celebrated in print and what’s more her work is funded by taxpayers. “There is a high degree of public interest in covering Ms Avia’s work”.
- Stuff decided to publish the poem was because it is so central to her story. The explicit language was abridged in print but, against Stuff’s usual protocols, it was uncensored in the video. However the video began with a clear message: ‘Warning video contains explicit language’.
- Stuff quotes statements from Creative NZ and the Human Rights Commissioner saying the poem was art and the sharing of ideas can help create greater understanding.
- On Principle (1) Stuff argues the poem is a work of art, not a piece of reporting, so the principle does not apply. However it notes its references to James Cook’s ships and the place where Cook was killed are accurate. Rape, murder and kidnappings are all crimes committed by colonisers.
- Stuff also argues Principle (3) does not apply, but again defends itself, pointing out the principle refers to reporting on young people, not young people’s access to the media. It adds that clear warnings were online and the expletives censored in print.
- Complainants Mr Watson, Mr Givnan, Mr Roy, Mr Murphy, Ms Norris, Ms Cox, Ms Robinson and Mr Browning all raise concerns under Principle (7) specifically in relation to the poem rather than the article. Stuff points out the principle names race as a legitimate subject worthy of debate if it is done in the public interest and without being gratuitous. In this case Ms Avia is talking about her own family background and her experience of racism growing up in Christchurch. In the article Ms Avia invites Pakeha to discuss the issue with her, even if they find her views uncomfortable.
- Mr Roy, Ms Norris and Mr Browning all raise concerns the poem constitutes hate speech. The poem was published in 2020, says Stuff, in a book that won arguably poetry’s biggest prize in this country. It has not provoked violence since then and neither has Ms Avia. Stuff quotes Creative NZ CEO Stephen Wainwright saying the poem “is the work of the imagination, it’s not a manifesto”. While the poem contains violent language “it is not a literal call to carry out violence on New Zealand Europeans”. To the contrary, the article quotes Ms Avia calling for a constructive conversation about colonisation and ethnicity.
- In response to Ms Cox’s concern the poem undoes unity built after the Christchurch mosque killings, Stuff says Ms Avia too grew up in Christchurch and this is her experience of racism over generations and quite distinct from the mosque attacks.
- Replying to Mr Browning’s concern that as a white man he would be crucified as racist if he wrote a similar poem, Stuff argues it draws on history and so the historical context is significant. It quotes New Zealand Poet Laureate Chris Tse, who tweeted “If you stop to reflect on where the poem has come from and the historic power imbalance it is addressing, you’ll see why it’s so angry”.
- Finally, Stuff underlines that that poem is a work of art, not journalism, yet it still thought long and hard before publishing. “Art is where ideas are raised and challenged”. It would be wrong to not report viewpoints because they make others uncomfortable but “it is in the public interest to protect the right for freedom of expression through art… Freedom of expression cannot be based on whether you agree with what is being said.”
In terms of Principle (1) Stuff is right to point out it is usually applied to news stories. We do not require balance in opinion pieces,
for example. A poem is clearly not a news article but rather an expression of opinion. The feature article however is subject to this
- Mr Murphy complains the article is little more than an ad for Ms Avia’s upcoming show while Mr Frewen describes it as an “uncritical profile”. Ms Avia is undeniably a celebrated writer and her success here and around the world, not to mention her receipt of government funding and her upcoming show, means coverage of her work is undoubtedly in the public interest. The tale of her upbringing, audiences’ difficulty with her work, her creative goals and processes make the article much more than an ad. Indeed, by reporting on Ms Avia, Stuff has exposed more people to her work and funding, which has generated debate and allowed people to decide for themselves whether or not they find her poetry brave, offensive or anything else.
- Mr Frewen makes a reasonable point that the piece is uncritical and given Stuff says it anticipated a backlash against the piece and wanted to provide context, a more critical appraisal of the art or the views being expressed could have been useful and provided balance. But that is Stuff’s decision to make; the issues of colonisation raised by Ms Avia certainly fit into the category of a long-running issue whereby balance can be provided over time. It does not come closing to warranting his complaint being upheld.
- In terms of accuracy, the details of Ms Avia’s life and career have not been called into question, while there’s also no suggestion than Stuff has been unfair to her in this article.
- It’s worth noting too that the context provided in the article helps the audience understand questions that arise from Ms Avia’s poem and the explanation of her background and motivation means the poem is less confronting and more understandable than if it had been published alone. The article’s headline and standfirst, plus the warning on the video, give fair warning of what’s to come.
- The poem itself is covered by several principles. Regarding Principle (3) its purpose is to protect children being reported on in the media not to protect children consuming media. Newspapers and websites routinely contain material unfit for younger readers, such as war and court reporting, and in this regard this poem is no different. Reader discretion is always advised and in this case Stuff went to great lengths to warn readers and viewers of all ages that it included explicit language and some of them would find the poem confronting and even offensive. The audience had every opportunity to turn away.
- Under Principle (4) facts relied on in works of opinion are required to be accurate. This line blurs somewhat when it comes to art and works of the imagination. But the names of James Cook, his ships, and the place where he was killed are all accurate. The rest is opinion.
- The bulk of these complaints will be considered under Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity.
- The Council understands that the poem has deeply upset the complainants. They have right to express their disgust and disagreement, take a different view of colonisation, write letters to the editor, not to read Stuff and consume other media. But they do not have the right to not be offended.
- Indeed, this poem is clearly intended to offend and to angrily challenge people’s views on colonisation, as explained in the feature. We note the Media Council does not have principles on taste and decency; that is the purview of the editor and if readers don’t like a publication’s taste they can write to the editor or get their news elsewhere. Equally, Stuff’s editorial policy around offensive language is its own business and the decision to abandon its own policies in the video is between it and its online audience.
- Several of the complainants argue the poem is racist. Racism is typically defined as discrimination by a powerful institution, group or person against a group or person based on their race or ethnicity. In colloquial terms it means “punching down”. So while less powerful groups or people can be discriminatory (and therefore subject to Media Council principles) they can seldom be racist. However we do not need to decide on that issue in this debate because the complaints are not against a column or article, but against a poem.
- While several of the complainants viewed the poem as racial hatred masquerading as art, the poem is undoubtedly a work of art and deserves to be judged as such. Contrary to one complaint, it is not a manifesto or a plea for real-life violence on a par with the Christchurch mosque killings, but clearly a work of imagination. As another complainant describes it, the poem is an example of “explicit violent racial revenge fantasies”. As Stuff notes, Ms Avia in the article calls for a conversation around these issues; she has said nothing in real life to incite racial violence and there is nothing to indicate that the poem has provoked any violence in the two and a half years since it was first published
- Complaints against a column expressing the writer’s desire to kill another would undoubtedly be upheld. Indeed, it would almost certainly never be published. However art is held to different standards. It always has been and rightly so. Poetry, for example, does not have to be accurate in the sense of Principle (1) it is often required not to be.
- Most of the complainants are concerned at the murderous violence described in the poem, but James Cook in this poem is not a person living in modern-day Christchurch and the violence is not real. Cook in the poem is a personification of all Pakeha male colonists over the past 250 years, or indeed of colonisation as a process that from the viewpoint of many indigenous peoples, often brought with it theft and violence, amongst other, arguably more favourable things. Personification is a common artistic device used across cultures and centuries, most often seen in newspapers when employed by cartoonists. By casting this ‘Cook’ as a modern day criminal on the streets of Christchurch, Ms Avia seems to be arguing not that James Cook himself was a rapist or murderer, but that the violence of the colonisation that followed Cook (often perpetrated by “white men like you”) still has repercussions today. Where many of the complainants see the poem as inciting violence, another reading of it suggests the poem is describing a legacy of violence and anger that the poet blames on colonisation.
- The comparison with cartoons is a useful one. We note previous Council decisions (e.g. Case 2787) acknowledging “cartoons “are given a wide license to offend” and offer confronting and affronting views that are “often strong and pungent”. In 2017 the Council ruled “Cartoons in the media represent freedom of speech at its most extreme interpretation. By their very nature, they are confronting, challenging and sometimes offensive”.
- Poems can be seen in a similar light. Indeed, to uphold complaints against art because it caused offence when shown to the public would have meant censoring work such as Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Picasso’s Guernica or Tracy Emin’s My Bed.
- Views on colonisation have been published in New Zealand media for more than a century, sometimes angrily and in terms offensive to others, often by Pakeha men. Given the importance of free speech to an open democracy, Stuff is just as entitled to publish Ms Avia’s views. Hearing the view of a Pasifika woman on the subject, however upsetting and whether one agrees with her or not, provides some balance to a long-running debate.
- Even if a Pasifika woman personifies colonisation in violent terms, there is nothing in our principles that require media to veer away from debating that violence. In truth, good journalism requires the media to publish examples of violence and wrestle with debate about violence on a daily basis.
- Some of the complainants might accept these arguments around art and free speech, agreeing that Stuff can publish confronting or offensive art, but not art that goes so far as to fantasise about murder. And in this case, murder based on race. They feel that crosses the line between confronting and racism or even hate speech. They feel it encourages violence and undermines the sort of social cohesion seen in the wake of the mosque shootings.
- But media organisations publish all sorts of view they don’t agree with, and rightly so. Publication of the poem does not equate with endorsement, as some complainants suggest. It is for Stuff to decide whether publication of this poem is divisive and, if so, whether or not it is in the public interest.
- The Council could only uphold the complaints if it felt the poem was gratuitous or a serious breach of professional standards.
- On the rare occasions the Council has upheld complaints against columns and even cartoons there have been gratuitous or further circumstances that we do not see here. The issue of race is core to Ms Avia’s strong view on colonisation and is the very point of the poem, so it is not gratuitous (as is indeed gender). As Principle (7) records, race is a legitimate topic for debate. The poem arguably uses dark humour, but it is not laughing at the powerless or another’s misery. Neither, given the personification of Cook, is it describing a real life situation. It is punching up at a more powerful race and gender, not down.
- For the reasons given above around free speech, the role of art and the nature of this poem, its publication, while upsetting for some, is not a breach of professional standards.
Decision: The complaints under Principles (1), (3), (4) and (7) are not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Rosemary Barraclough; Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Hank Schouten, Ben Frances, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.