CATHERINE O'BRIEN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2424

Council Meeting: MARCH 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Columnists
Offensive Language
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage


Catherine O’Brien claims an opinion piece by John Roughan and published in the New Zealand Herald on March 1, 2015, was offensive and irresponsible and, therefore, breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) and Principle 7 (Discrimination and Diversity).
The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The opinion piece is headlined ‘Trifling afflictions that make us stronger’, with a sub heading of ‘Our little redhead will quickly learn that insults hurt only if you let them’.
It references the writer’s grandson having red hair, like him, and how he suspects the mother, his daughter, worries the boy will be teased. He is certain he will be.
The opinion piece goes on to talk of the columnist’s own experiences of growing up with red hair, including references to it being an ‘affliction’ and having a possible ‘cure’.
He draws analogies with his other ‘affliction’; colour blindness.
In ending the opinion piece, he makes warm reference to his grandson being stronger because of what he will experience having red hair, and to the special connection the pair will enjoy because of it.

Complaint
The complainant, describing the opinion piece as an article, says references to ‘affliction’ and ‘cure’ make it offensive and irresponsible. It also perpetuates the “phenomenon that it’s acceptable and funny to malign people who have red hair”.
It isn’t acceptable to make derogatory comments about someone’s skin colour, so nor is it acceptable to do so in regards to hair colour. It borders on racism.
The columnist makes a sweeping generalisation that red hair is unattractive.
The complainant is aware of discrimination of red haired people, including in the media. It is irresponsible.
In the complainant’s correspondence to the editor, she says she finds it strange that the writer would belittle his own grandson.
The column is defamatory of people with red hair.

Editor’s Response
The response was provided by New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie.
The editor is surprised and sorry the column has offended.
Roughan does not belittle his grandchild or perpetuate the maligning of people with red hair.
The column is not racist and is the columnist’s own opinion, based on his experiences.
The editor upholds the columnist’s right to freedom of expression.
The complainant was offered the chance to submit a letter which would be considered for publication.

Discussion
The column was very much in the newspaper’s style of an opinion piece and was clearly marked as such.
The Press Council sets a very high bar for complaints about opinion pieces, on the basis that there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression.
Mr Roughan is entitled to his opinion and, as a red head, was well placed to comment on the experiences of people with red hair.
Beyond this defence, the Council does not believe the column could be reasonably viewed as irresponsible, offensive or discriminative. Instead, it carried the tone of a loving grandfather comparing his experiences of having red hair with those likely ahead of his grandson, and the strength those experiences would build.

The complaint is not upheld.

Note John Roughan, the author of this piece, is a member of the Press Council. Mr Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.