Press Council condemns 'Asian angst' story

By Paula Oliver

A North & South cover article which discussed Asian immigration and crime breached principles governing accuracy and discrimination, says the Press Council.

In a decision made public today, the council upholds complaints against the article written by Deborah Coddington which appeared in November last year.

The magazine's cover flagged the story as: "Asian Angst: Is it time to send some back?"

The article went on to use figures which showed a rise in the number of offences committed by Asians - not including Indians - between 1996 and 2005 in the 17-to-50 age group.

But complainants to the Press Council protested that the article did not take into account that a rise in the Asian population had also occurred.

They argued that figures showed Asians were even less likely in 2005 than the general population to commit a crime than they had been in 1996.

That meant that phrases used in the article, such as "the gathering crime tide" and "Asian menace" were misleading, one of the complainants argued.

The Press Council described the crime figures as being "at the heart" of the article, although it did also refer to demands on legal aid and health services.

Several crimes committed by Asians, ranging from kidnapping to murders and breaches of the Fair Trading Act, were discussed in the article, which quoted Detective Sergeant John Sowter of the Auckland Drug Squad as saying 90 per cent of major drug cases involved foreign nationals "and the large majority of those are Asian".

The council's decision stated that freedom of expression, affirmed by the Bill of Rights Act, was not unlimited.

It said immigration policy and crime rates in a specific ethnic community or sector of society were legitimate subjects for journalistic investigation, and magazines were "entitled to take a strong position on issues they address".

"But that does not legitimise gratuitous emphasis on dehumanising racial stereotypes and fear-mongering and, of course, the need for accuracy always remains."

The council said Coddington had argued that she clearly stated in the article that the Asian population had risen. But she also argued that she did not intend to insult the intelligence of readers by putting it in the same sentence as the crime figures.

"The council does not accept this argument. The linkage is vital and should have been made explicit.

"It is abundantly clear and is not effectively challenged by Ms Coddington, despite quibbles about terminology and direct comparisons of her figures with those of her critics, that the rate of offending is dropping pro rata.

"To then talk of a gathering crime tide is therefore wrong," the council found.

It also criticised language in the article as "emotionally loaded".

Coddington could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in a column in the Herald on Sunday she labelled the council's decision "pathetic".

She questioned whether she should have been judged by three lawyers, a retired diplomat, a teacher, a writer, an editor and just one journalist she respected.

"I can just imagine how lawyers would react if, when sent to the disciplinary tribunal of the Law Society, they were judged by journalists, teachers, a PR hack, et al," she wrote.

Complaints were lodged against the North & South article by several people, including the media adviser to the Asian New Zealand Foundation, Charles Mabbett.

There were several signatories to a complaint by Tze Ming Mok, including the New Zealand Chinese Association and a Herald journalist.

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