Complaints against Waitangi column upheld

Press Council decision

1. The New Zealand Press Council has received seven complaints against a Paul Holmes column in The Weekend Herald of 11 February 2012 headed "Waitangi Day a complete waste". The standfirst was: "It's time to cancel our repugnant national holiday". While some of the complaints refer to other principles, the complaints in the main are based on the Council's Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and Principle 6 (discrimination and diversity).

2. The complaints are upheld.

3. The Column

To give the complaints context, it is necessary to set out in full some of the paragraphs from the column. The relevant paragraphs read:

"Waitangi Day produced its usual hatred, rudeness, and violence against a clearly elected Prime Minister from a group of hateful, hate-fuelled weirdos who seem to exist in a perfect world of benefit provision.

"This enables them to blissfully continue to believe that New Zealand is the centre of the world, no one has to have a job and the Treaty is all that matters.

"I'm over Waitangi Day. It is repugnant. It's a ghastly affair. As I lie in bed on Waitangi morning, I know that later that evening, the news will show us irrational Maori ghastliness with spitting, smugness, self-righteousness and the usual neurotic Maori politics, in which some bizarre new wrong we've never thought about will be lying on the table.

"This, we will have to address and somehow apply these never-defined principles of the Treaty of Waitangi because it is, apparently, the next big resentment. There'll be lengthy discussion, we'll end up paying the usual millions into the hands of the Maori aristocracy and God knows where it'll go from there.

"Well, it's a bullshit day, Waitangi. It's a day of lies. It is loony Maori fringe self-denial day.

"It's a day when everything is addressed, except the real stuff. Never mind the child stats, never mind the national truancy stats, never mind the hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children and stop them bashing their babies. No, it's all the Pakeha's fault. It's all about hating whitey. Believe me, that's what it looked like the other day.

...

"No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions."

4. The Complainants

The complainants - Cameron Junge, Marinus Ferreira, Theresa Aperehama, Juliana Venning, Georgia Harrison, Raukura Waiti and Diane White - expressed their complaints in a variety of ways but a summary of their comments is:

(a): I find the racist, bigoted comments by Paul Holmes to be offensive. They are hate speech, not just an opinion. They are not countered by an opposing view to bring perspective, and have incited further hate speech in the comments.

(b): The article does not recognise the sacrifices that Maori have made including deaths and injuries in the name of the New Zealand we have today. It belittles and ridicules Maori as a people, and the Treaty that is a foundation document of New Zealand society.

(c): Holmes straightforwardly makes inflammatory remarks aimed at Maori ... There is no way to read this passage other than in the obvious way, as an attempt to alienate Maori from Pakeha.

(d): I find this type of journalism insulting and offensive.

(e): An editor by allowing this ignorant "rant" to appear in print, disrespects our foundation document.

(f): It is offensive and disgusting, and it promotes inaccurate racial stereotypes.

(g): The column raises a discussion of race and minority groups in a way that is neither relevant nor in the public interest; and places gratuitous emphasis on race and a minority group.

5. The Weekend Herald's Response

The editor of the Weekend Herald, David Hastings, has responded acknowledging that while some people found the column offensive, it did not breach any law or the Council's principles. In referring to particular aspects of the complaints, the Editor stated:

(a): The column was a contribution to a debate about Waitangi Day and its place in New Zealand society. That debate had started the previous week and included other editorials and contributions from other columnists in the sister paper, the New Zealand Herald.

(b): The columnist argued in strong language that Waitangi Day could not be the national day for him because of what he regarded as the abhorrent behaviour and attitudes of protesters, including their blaming of Maori social problems on the Pakeha and demands for compensation.

(c): One complainant erroneously read the column as an attack on all Maori rather than just on the activists.

(d): A sentence which contained no reference to protesters should be read in context and when considered in context the column was not a criticism of Maori generally but an attack on the fringe, namely the protesters, the "hate-fuelled weirdos" of the column's introduction.

(e): The columnist is highly critical of the Maori activists who disrupt proceedings at Waitangi, not on the grounds of their race, but because he sees them as being hateful, rude and violent and their politics as irrational and neurotic.

6. When the Council's principles are applied, the Weekend Herald's position is:

(a): The Council in dealing with complaints gives primary consideration to freedom of expression in the public interest.

(b): Under the principles, expression of opinion to do with issues such as race and gender are acceptable provided they are relevant and in the public interest.

(c): Reliance was placed on a statement of a former Chair of the Press Council, given on World Press Freedom Day in 2001, namely: New Zealanders have a highly developed sense of fairness but some encounter difficulties with the publication of full blown views that might range from the mildly offensive to a deeply shocking attack on some treasured documents current in our society ... It is ... part of the free and unfettered exchange of opinion in an open society that offensive expression will find a place, even where distortions or extreme views are integral to such expressions.

(d): Several previous decisions of the Council were referred to but these have been read and in the Council's view do not alter the principles which apply in this case.

7. Discussion

If the Weekend Herald's view is accepted, then an opinion piece is immune from the upholding of a complaint. This is not the Council's view. Freedom of expression does give a very generous licence in an opinion piece but that licence is not unlimited.

8. The Council's View

It is the Council's view, supported by its previous decisions, that the correct application of the relevant principles is in summary:

(a): An opinion column does not usually require balance. The Council has held in one case that a newspaper had an obligation when reporting on a long-running dispute that the opinion piece had to be fair and balanced.

(b): The material facts on which the opinion is based need to be accurate.

(c): An opinion piece is entitled to take a strong position on issues that it addresses. This however does not legitimise gratuitous emphasis on dehumanising racial stereotypes or fear-mongering.

(d): The Council will not uphold complaints against expressions of opinion that are extreme, provocative and offensive, and even abusive. However, if the opinion is so extreme in substance or tone as to go beyond what is acceptable as opinion, a complaint can be upheld. It would take extreme circumstances to do with risks to the public or gratuitous offence to a particular group for the Council to uphold a complaint in those circumstances.

9. There is no issue of balance in this case.

Balance may be required in some circumstances where there is an ongoing controversy but this is not one of those cases and even if it were, the Herald in its several columns and editorials on the Waitangi Day issue has been fair and balanced.

10. The Council accepts that the complainants and others would have found the article insulting, offensive and even disgusting.

This in itself is not sufficient to uphold the complaints. It is not proposed to refer to the complaint that the column contained "hate speech" as this is a legal matter and one of the complainants has unsuccessfully taken the matter to the Human Rights Commission.

11. In the Council's view the issues in this complaint are:

(a): Have any of the opinions expressed been based on facts which are inaccurate or have not been established?

(b): Are the opinions so extreme that they go beyond what is acceptable?

(c): If the opinions go beyond what is acceptable, is it because of the gratuitous offence to Maori?

12. The Council does not accept the Weekend Herald's view that it is erroneous to read the column as an attack on all Maori rather than just on the activists.

Clearly Mr Holmes made very strong statements against the protesters and in an opinion piece he is entitled to do this. However, on an ordinary reading of the column he went far further. His reference to "except the real stuff" before the reference to child and national truancy statistics, the "hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children and stop them bashing their babies," following the reference to the "loony Maori fringe self-denial day" is clearly pointing the finger at Maori generally rather than the protesters.

13. The reference to Maori generally is reinforced with his reference to "a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions."

This is preceded by reference to Maori wanting Waitangi Day for themselves rather than the protesters wanting Waitangi Day for themselves. "Usual neurotic Maori politics" can be seen in the same context. Likewise the reference to paying millions to the Maori aristocracy is a reference to Maori generally.

14. When the statements are considered in context, a reasonable reader would assume they are referring to Maori as a race rather than to just the protesters at Waitangi.

While there may be truth in the "hopeless failure" of some Maori to educate their children and stop bashing their babies, it is inaccurate to make the allegation against Maori as a race.

15. The inaccuracies upon which some of the opinions are based also make the opinions so extreme that in the Council's view they go beyond what is acceptable and become a gratuitous offence to Maori as a race.

16. It is because the allegations against Maori as a race are inaccurate, and the opinions are extreme to the extent of being a gratuitous offence to Maori, that the complaints are upheld.

Bill of Rights Act

The New Zealand Press Council is an independent self-regulatory body that determines complaints according to ethical principles. It is not constituted by statute, and so it might be considered that the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 do not apply. However, the Press Council does perform a public function and has formally endorsed both the principles and spirit of the Bill of Rights Act.

Thus the Council does consider and balance both section 14 (freedom of expression) and section 5 (justified limitations on the rights and freedoms contained within the Act) when making its determinations.

Editors who have agreed to put their publications under the jurisdiction of the Press Council have determined that their decisions should be measured against an agreed set of binding principles - the Council's Statement of Principles. These Principles can be said to impose reasonable limits, if demonstrably justified, which may curtail the section 14 rights.

So, in determining the complaints against the Holmes' Waitangi Day column, while the Council affirms Mr Holmes' right to hold his opinions, it also has to measure and balance the newspaper's decision to publish those opinions against the agreed Statement of Principles. The Council finds the column to have breached its Principles and it is on this basis that the complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part on the consideration of this complaint.

- NZ Herald

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