WHITE AND PALMER AGAINST THE PRESS

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The Press
involving a column written by Alan Duff.

Nicholas White and Gillian Palmer faxed a letter to the editor of the newspaper on 21 May 1998 complaining about Alan Duff’s opinion column published on 19 May. The central points of the column were that welfare reform is a good and necessary thing and that welfare dependence is undesirable. In the absence of a response, they wrote to the Press Council on 29 May complaining about the content of the column.

Their faxed letter to the editor objected to references in the column to sickness beneficiaries and in particular the use of the words labelling sickness and unemployment beneficiaries as ‘our inferior species.’ They viewed such language as bigoted hate language, the sort that the Nazis had used. They also added a footnote that they did not want their letter to be abridged.

The acting editor of The Press apologised for the oversight of the letter in question explaining that the newspaper receives some 250 letters each week of which 100-120 were published and thousands of pages of faxed material. He proposed to redress the situation by offering to publish the letter, but minus the final sentence which demanded an apology.

He acknowledged that Mr White and Ms Palmer were obviously sincere in their belief that the Alan Duff column was dangerous and bigoted, but he disagreed with that assesment. He said the column was a forthright, even aggressively opinionated, but honestly held opinion. He enclosed published letters to the editor from other correspondents both for and against Alan Duff’s opinions.

Mr White and Ms Palmer accepted the newspaper’s reasons for failing to respond to their original letter. They also appreciated the merits of the arguments about publishing a wide variety of opinion, but continued to take exception to the phrase ‘our inferior species’ in conjunction with the rest of the article. They did not find the offer to publish the letter minus the final sentence acceptable.

The Press Council finds the complainants were given the opportunity to have their opinion heard by way of having their letter published albeit without the final sentence. The article which caused the complaint is clearly an expression of Alan Duff’s strongly held beliefs as is the complainants’ letter. However it is understandable that offence was taken from such sweeping statements. While acknowleging that columnists have freedom of speech there should be a corresponding obligation not to be too sweeping when denigrating particular groups.

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