Case Number: 1028

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of

Ms Annette Conroy complained to the Press Council that the New Zealand Herald frequently published editorials and articles that made derogatory and disparaging references to female single parents and this stereotyped portrayal of a minority group was clearly discriminatory.

As an example, she cited two articles about drug abuse, which included a story about a single mother who worked as a prostitute to support her addiction to “P’.

The Press Council does not uphold her complaint.

In her submissions, Ms Conroy mentions “inaccurate statements” and “fabricated information that portrays single mothers in a negative slant”. Further, the complainant maintains that the NZ Herald “regularly employs as a device, the polarisation of single mothers as a group” and the newspaper holds “entrenched discriminatory views”. She took particular exception to the newspaper’s continual use of the term “solo mum”.

However, Ms Conroy submitted little evidence that would back up such a sweeping and general accusation. Although she does refer to “editorials”, examples are not provided and the core of her complaint lies in a report into New Zealand’s drug industry, published by the NZ Herald in April, 2005.

Over several days and at considerable length, the Herald backgrounded the “industry” featuring areas such as international drug lords, the power of gangs in this trade, the marketing of drugs, treatment centres and victims.

In the first of these features, on April 16, one sentence concerned Ms Conroy . . . “It seems amphetamines are for everyone – night clubbers, professionals, solo mothers.” This sentence was further highlighted in an adjoining side bar.

Ms Conroy sees this as polarising single mothers as a “lower caste of society”. There is a sense of a contrast here, between professional and solo mother, though of course one could easily be both, (and a night clubber at the same time for that matter), but the Press Council is more inclined to the Deputy Editor’s point of view – that this was merely an attempt to show how amphetamine abuse can affect varied people in New Zealand society.

In the later feature on victims, on April 20, three stories are told. “John” is a self-employed tradesman but now faces a lengthy jail term; “Fiona” is a “solo mum” who has “lost everything” to “P”’ including her two pre-school children; “Dave” (whose heritage is Pacific Island/European) finds that crime is the only way to feed his habit.

The complainant suggests that “Fiona” is so much a stereotype, “a drug-addicted prostitute solo mum on the domestic purposes benefit”, (Ms Conroy’s words) and so improbable, that she may well be a composite character. At any rate, “Fiona” is apparently used as a scapegoat to “perpetuate . . . derogatory myths associated with single motherhood”.

The complainant questioned whether “Fiona” should even have been referred to as a “solo mum” because of a later reference to her partner.

In reply, the Deputy Editor of the NZ Herald clarified that “Fiona” had indeed been a single parent when her use of “P” first began. He further explained that “Fiona” was used because she had a real story to tell about the damage caused by drugs and stressed that she was indeed an individual and not a composite character. Her identity had not been revealed for obvious reasons.

The Council accepts the Herald’s assurance that “Fiona” was not an artificial collage constructed from several drug-related stories. The Council also finds that the newspaper’s telling of the story of a single mother is not discriminatory towards single mothers in general. The reference to John as a “tradesman” does not polarise all tradespeople as a group. Nor does a background detail about Dave’s Pacific Island/European heritage discriminate against all those from a similar ethnic background.

The Press Council includes in its Statement of Principles the proviso that “publications should not place gratuitous emphasis on gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour, or physical or mental disability” and Ms Conroy’s complaint is indeed a valid reminder of the need for journalists to use a term such as “solo mum”, with great care. It can lead to negative stereotyping. In this example, single mother or single parent would have been described “Fiona” accurately while avoiding the connotations inherent in the expression “solo mum”.

However, given the context of establishing for the reader the reality of “Fiona” and her circumstances and the single use of the term in this article of April 20, the NZ Herald was not being gratuitously emphatic.

Overall, the Press Council rejects Ms Conroy’s suggestion that the NZ Herald repeatedly exhibits blatant discrimination towards single mothers and is careless of offending such individuals. That might very well be her view but the evidence which she provided does not substantiate such a serious accusation.

The complaint is not upheld.

Mr John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint. Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Puata, Lynn Scott, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Clive Lind and Terry Snow.