DAVID COOK AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 1064

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Cartoons
Accuracy

Dave Cook complained to the Press Council that a cartoon, published in The Press on 31 March 2006, was inaccurate and discriminatory. The complaint is not upheld.

Background

On 3 April, Mr Cook wrote to the editor of The Press, complaining about a cartoon by Garrick Tremain that was published in The Press, on the opinion page, on 31 March 2006.

The cartoon is headed up “NEWS: grave concerns at NZ’s domestic violence.” In the picture, one woman is looking at a baby in a pram and saying to his mother, “what a bonny wee lad ... and he’s got mummy’s lovely black eyes.” The mother is wearing sunglasses. The baby has black eyes.

Mr Cook complained that the cartoon portrayed family violence as exclusively perpetuated by men, which was both offensive and inaccurate. He objected to “blinkered prejudice” on the issue of violence and referred to an article that The Press had recently published, which reported that young women were just as likely to beat up young men as vice versa. He argued that:

“Men are just as caring of their children and just as often victims of violence as women. Men are much more often the victims of state enforced sanctions through the Family Court separating them from those they love in a manner which amounts to violence.”

Mr Cook requested a retraction, preferably in the form of another Tremain cartoon given equal prominence withdrawing the earlier cartoon with apologies.

On 4 April 2006 the Associate Editor replied to Mr Cook’s letter of complaint, defending the cartoon as opinion on a topical issue that required no apology. However, Mr Cook was invited to submit a letter for publication setting out his objections to the cartoon.

Complaint to the Press Council

Not satisfied with the newspaper’s response, on 20 May 2006 Mr Cook complained to the Press Council on grounds that the cartoon discriminated against men, that it was offensive and that it was likely to reinforce male stereotypes. In his opinion it was a

“… blatant and unjustified attack on a sector of the community in that if these issues are dealt with fairly and objectively instead of in an emotional, aggressive and unfair way, it will eventually be recognised that the problem of violence is community wide and involves people, not just women as victims and will make it easier for men where they are not the aggressors to care for and protect their children too.”

He maintained that The Press “would not dare to publish such an inaccurate cartoon against any other sector of society.”

Mr Cook referred the Press Council to the earlier Press article, and a report of the research that that article was based on, in support of his argument that the cartoon was inaccurate and discriminatory. He also provided material related to perceptions of discrimination against males within New Zealand society and its institutions, including the media and schools, and in particular within the Family Court.

Mr Cook said that he did not take up the offer of a letter for publication because it would have “little or no impact in forming or modifying public opinion, certainly nowhere near as much as a cartoon”.

The Newspaper’s response

In response, the editor of The Press, Paul Thompson, said that cartoonists provide robust comment on current events. In this case, the factual basis of the cartoon – that women and children are victims of domestic abuse – was beyond dispute. The cartoon did not record that men are also victims of domestic violence but a cartoon cannot be expected to cover an issue from every angle; to do so would stifle debate.

The Press Council was also referred to an impressive range of articles relating to men’s issues, including domestic violence against men, which have been published in The Press in the recent past.

The editor pointed out that complaints about the opinion page cartoon are frequently published in the letters column, which is very well-read. Mr Cook was offered the same but chose not to take up that invitation.

Further comment from Mr Cook

Mr Cook acknowledged that cartoons are a traditional means of social comment and opinion. However, he argued that newspapers are required to ensure that cartoons are “as accurate as possible.” In this case, he maintains that the cartoon was both inaccurate and discriminatory. He also referred the Press Council to further material he considered relevant to the issue of discrimination against men.

On 18 September 2006 Mr Cook presented oral submissions to the Press Council. He referred to his personal experiences of violence and to perceptions of discrimination against men in New Zealand, particularly in the Family Court. Particular emphasis was laid on a research paper prepared by a third party in the course of a Masters Degree discussing perceptions of 'anti-male bias' in the Family Court.

The editor did not wish to attend or present oral submissions in reply.

Decision

The cartoon appeared as a regular feature on the editorial page under a banner clearly headed ‘Opinion’. The Press Council has consistently ruled in favour of editors’ responsibility for the content of editorial pages. It would take extreme circumstances to do with risk to the public interest or gratuitous offence to a particular group for the Council to rule otherwise (see ruling 1055). This is not one of those cases.

Cartoons may offend some readers because they rely on bold exaggeration and stereotyping. And so it was in this case. Mr Tremain did not represent domestic violence as exclusively perpetrated by men against women. Rather, the cartoonist pointed up a contemporary news issue in a bold and provocative way.

It is not a question of accuracy or discrimination but one of symbolism. Obviously robbers do not all wear an eye-mask and carry a loot sack but that is the instantly recognisable image used to represent robbery in cartoons. So too the woman and child with blacked eyes was the instantly recognisable image that Mr Tremain used in this case to represent domestic violence. There was no gratuitous emphasis on the gender of the victims or the presumed perpetrator(s). Nor is the Press Council persuaded that the cartoon posed a risk to the well-being of men in general or particular groups of men such as to render it against the public interest. On the contrary, it highlighted New Zealand’s appalling rates of domestic violence - whatever the gender of the victims or perpetrators.

Mr Cook was invited to share his perspective on the issue by way of a letter to the editor. He chose not to.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.