COMPLAINT AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2080

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Comment and Fact
Discrimination

A complaint against a column entitled Bullies all emerging has not been upheld by the Press Council.

The Article:
Beck Eleven writes a weekly column appearing in The Press, Christchurch, on Saturdays. Her brief is to offer views on life and events and people she encounters. She writes in a style that is youthful and combative.

The column that is the subject of complaint appeared on April 4. It poked fun at a number of people she called “column bullies”. Among them was a correspondent she dubbed, “little Freddie Double-Barrel”.

“Freddie” is aged 13. On February 28 he had emailed a letter to the editor of The Press criticising the Beck Eleven column in sweeping terms. He called it “immature ramblings” and described that day's effort as “the single most horrible article I have ever read in my life.”

He said, “I personally don't want to know about some guy I don't know (who) has a big nose and prefers kisses over hongis. Gee, reading that article, what a big fat waste of my life. At least now I know what my family are talking about when they complain about Beck Eleven.”

The Press chose not to print his letter but passed it to the columnist who used it for the article of April 4. She quoted his general criticisms and, noting he had called himself “a somewhat frustrated teenager”, she said, “If I was a teenage lad I'd be relieving my frustration using a far more efficient technique than letter writing.”

The Complaint:
The complainant is “Freddie’s” grandmother. She complains that Beck Eleven has ridiculed her grandson's name, his age, his letter and the opinions of his family. She accuses the columnist of exaggeration, misnomers, salacious innuendo and sarcasm as well as ridicule.

She describes the article as a “scurrilous piece of media bullying” and sees it to be a symptom of a disturbing increase in female violence in our society, often presented as entertainment.

She believes the article breaches several of the principles upheld by the Press Council, namely:
* Principle 5 that editors should exercise particular care in reporting on or about young people.
* Principle 6, that publications should distinguish the reporting of fact from opinions and comment.
* Principle 8, that publications should not place gratuitous emphasis on age, among other characteristics.

The Newspaper's Response:
The editor, Andrew Holden, points out that Beck Eleven was careful not to identify “Freddie” publicly since his letter had not been published, but says the columnist intended her critic to know to whom she referred.

Mr Holden says it was the critic's age that captured her attention. Subsequent emails from “Freddie” to The Press over the non-publication of his letter did not suggest to Mr Holden that he was vulnerable or that he had taken offence from Beck Eleven's comments.

Discussion:
The Council has considered this complaint under the three principles cited above. Dealing first with Principle 8, it finds the reference to “Freddie’s” youth to be fair since he himself had mentioned his age and the column is intended for a youthful audience.

It also finds that the column was plainly opinion and could not be mistaken for factual reporting under Principle 6.

A more difficult issue arises under Principle 5, requiring care in the treatment of children and young people. “Freddie” was 13, an age between childhood and adolescence. He was old enough to submit a forthright opinion for publication, not old enough to express himself in terms that might have persuaded the newspaper to run it.

Despite its non-publication, the columnist decided to use it. It may not be unusual for columnists to reply to unpublished criticism but it is a practice the Council suggests they should approach with care. The critic's views ought to be represented fairly and perhaps more fully than they would in a reply to published comment.

The editor mentions that Beck Eleven intended “Freddie” to recognise himself in the column. He also points out that subsequent email discussion with “Freddie” over the non-publication of his letter contains nothing to suggest the young man felt hurt or humiliated.

In an email after the April 4 column, “Freddie” wrote, “Maybe next time somebody criticises Beck Eleven's work she should just deal with it like an adult instead of abusing the writer; after all, all she did was prove my points.”

The Council is impressed with the maturity of this response. The concerns expressed by the complainant are not evident in her grandson's communications with the newspaper or with this Council.

Since the 13-year-old does not appear to have suffered from a lack of care on the part of the columnist the article cannot be found in breach of Principle 5.

But the Council notes that the maturity of this 13-year-old's response was known to the newspaper only after the fact, and it continues to urge caution in publishing criticism of someone so young.

Decision:

The complaint is not upheld on any of the grounds cited.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.