BARBARA PIKE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2276

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

A complaint by Barbara Pike against the New Zealand Herald is not upheld.

Background
The NZ Herald, on 26 June, published an opinion column by Sir Bob Jones headed “Roll up, roll up – see the skinny freak”. The gist of the column was that where once fat people featured in circus freak shows, they have now become so common that a ‘freak show’ today might feature a skinny person.
In typical un-PC style, Sir Bob commented on the high number of obese people he observed from his Wellington office block, and stated that in April he had advertised a ‘freak show’ featuring a slim woman and an untattooed man. He exacerbated the ‘freakishness’ of the woman by claiming that she was a pretty Bulgarian, and in his opinion these were not common. Later in the column he referred to “stunning Chinese beauties” in Auckland pursuing a “genetically pre-determined requirement of non-stop frock and shoe purchasing”.
Despite the ridiculing of various groups in the column, his point was that obesity is largely self-inflicted and if people monitored their food intake, obesity could be rectified. He supported this perspective with a case study of a young man who had achieved just this kind of result.

The Complaint
Barbara Pike, a counsellor who works with people with various problems, complained to the Herald, citing “the shaming and hatred of overweight individuals” as well as “clearly racist and sexist opinions”. She had complained to the Herald on 27 June along these lines, and was dissatisfied with the editor’s response that while the piece was provocative, it was a columnist’s right to “challenge orthodox thinking”. The editor told Ms Pike that the appropriate response was to join in the debate as others had done.
Dissatisfied with his response, Ms Pike forwarded her complaint to the Press Council stating that the column breached principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, and of discrimination and diversity.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor reiterated the points that he had initially made to Ms Pike. He stated that Sir Bob was inverting traditional ‘freak show’ terminology by applying it to skinny people, hence the word was acceptable. He stated that there was a lively discussion both online and in the paper about the column.

Further Comment
Ms Pike continued to disagree with the editor’s comments, maintaining that the column amounted to “hate speech” and that harmful language had been used to describe overweight people. The editor had not engaged with her complaints of racism and sexism. Sir Bob’s opinions, she believed, were outdated and had no place in a major news publication.
In reply the editor said Ms Pike’s views were relevant as examples of the thinking that the columnist was mocking, and that claims about “hate speech” were being broadly bandied about without there being such a category of offence in New Zealand.
Columnists are not there to soft-soap their opinions with bland language to avoid hurting people’s feelings, he said.

Discussion
Sir Bob Jones’ column was clearly ironic, satirical and overtly non-PC. Columnists are frequently offensive in their comments as they seek to provoke discussion.
Accordingly, while the Council acknowledges the distaste that Ms Pike feels for the sentiments expressed by Sir Bob, it does not accept that these are sufficient, in the circumstances, to uphold her complaint.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.

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