ELIZA PRESTIDGE OLDFIELD AGAINST THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2638

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2017

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Comment and Fact
Discrimination

Overview

1. Stuff ran an opinion piece by Duncan Garner Dear New Zealand, how do we want to look in 20 years? on 7 October. The column was also published inThe Dominion Post. In it Mr Garner discusses his recent visit to Kmart where he observed the long line waiting for the check-out. He used his observations of who was standing in the line to comment on current immigration policy. He considered what the future of New Zealand may be if, he argues, we do not plan better for our future population.

2. The complaint was upheld by a majority of five members with four members dissenting.

The Complaint

3. Eliza Prestidge Oldfield complains that the article falls short of Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity. This principle states that “issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting”.

4. She argues that the article refers to a group of immigrants and suggests that immigration is a concern because the migrants are from those countries. She points out that if the article wanted to avoid a racist subtext particular minority groups should not have been singled out.

5. She also complains that the article falls short of Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 4 Comment and Fact, in that “a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion” and Principle 5 that states that columns, blogs, opinion and letters should be labelled as such.

The Response

6. Bernadette Courtney, Editor in Chief Central Region, responds by stating that the column is an opinion piece and clearly labelled as such. She acknowledges that the content may not sit well with some readers but defends the right to present a variety of views. She pointed out that the paper published a right of reply from the Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and also published a number of letters with a diverse range of views on the article.

The Decision

  • 7. The Press Council in the past has ruled on complaints against opinion pieces. While an opinion piece does not require balance and is entitled to take a strong position on issues that it addresses, it needs to be based on facts that are accurate and to take into account relevant Press Council principles (such as Principles 4 and 7).
  • 8. In relation to principle 7 it should not legitimise gratuitous emphasis on stereotypes or fear-mongering. The Council will not uphold complaints against expressions of opinion simply on the basis that they are extreme, provocative, and/or offensive. However, if the opinion is so extreme in substance or tone as to go beyond what is acceptable as opinion and amount to a breach of Principle 7, a complaint will be upheld.
  • 9. The parts of the article which are relevant to the complaint start with a statement that the visit to the shopping mall “ . . . fast became a nightmarish glimpse into our future if we stuff it up.” The writer then describes “a massive human snake” and continues: “The self-service counter could not cope. It couldn’t cope with the pressures of the people. The dozens of stressed faces making up the human snake were frustrated too. I looked around, it could have been anywhere in South East Asia. I wasn’t shocked – we have reported this for three years – we have targeted immigrants, opened the gates and let in record numbers. This year’s net gain of migrants was 72,000. Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, and many others. I saw the changing face of New Zealand at the cross roads, otherwise known as Kmart’s self-service counter”.
  • 10. Much of the article consists of legitimate expression of opinion on questions of immigration and population control. It is clearly labelled as opinion and there is no failure to distinguish between opinion and fact (Principles 4 and 5).
  • 11. The main questions before the Press Council relate to the requirements that there be a clear distinction between fact and opinion and that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate (Principle 4), and to the discrimination and diversity principle (Principle 7).
  • 12. In relation to principle 4, Mr Garner appears to offer the “fact” that New Zealand’s population is growing because of South East Asian immigration. The actual drivers of population growth are more complex than that. It is only in the last three years that India and China were the top two countries of origin for New Zealand migrants, and in any event, these countries are not generally included in the popular understanding of “South East Asia”. Before that the United Kingdom topped all figures. While the Asian population in New Zealand is the fastest growing (up 33 percent from the 2006 to 2013 census), it still only represents 12 percent of the total population, and not all those of Asian ethnicity are migrants. Population growth can also be driven by New Zealanders returning from overseas or deciding not to migrate. Conflating migration and refugees is also unhelpful.
  • 13. In addition, Mr Garner singles out migrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria, countries which are the source of relatively few migrants. The immediate juxtaposition of the figure of 72 000 with the singled out groups amounts to misleading the reader on a factual issue. At the very least the line between fact and opinion has become blurred in this case.
  • 14. In presenting the data as he did, Mr Garner has inaccurately targeted a group of migrants in a way that leads the reader to infer that these groups are driving the poor outcomes for all New Zealanders that Mr Garner outlines. Immigration data, however, tells a more complex story. In presenting the data as Mr Garner did, the reader is led to make inferences that the “blame” for New Zealanders’ poor outcomes and standard of living lies with a targeted group of migrants. As such, the complaint under Principle 4 is upheld.
  • 15. With regard to Principle 7, the Press Council acknowledges and agrees that minority groups, race and colour are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and the discussion is in the public interest. However there should not be gratuitous emphasis on any such category. In this case, the article was directed at immigration and the consequences of uncontrolled population growth. The arguments are not advanced or aided in any way by singling out certain ethnic or national groups. That certain ethnic groups were singled out and some of these are groups do not provide large numbers of migrants is of most concern. Despite the writer’s protestations to the contrary, his approach can only be seen as gratuitous racism, especially when linked with the description of New Zealand’s future as nightmarish. The Council members upholding the complaint paid due consideration to freedom of expression as discussed in previous cases and concluded that this case went beyond what we deemed acceptable.
  • 16. The complaint under Principle 7 is also upheld.

Press Council members upholding this complaint were Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten and Marie Shroff

Dissent

17. The chairman, Sir John Hansen, and three members of the Council, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and John Roughan, disagreed with the decision to uphold the complaint. In their view the column, while unpleasant, did not overstep the boundaries established by the Council’s principles and previous decisions regarding expressions of opinion on subjects involving race.

18. They noted the Council is reluctant to limit freedom of expressions of opinion on any subject and its principles and rulings allow ethnic issues to be debated so long as the references to race are not gratuitous and do not ascribe adverse characteristics or behaviour to an entire racial group. (See cases 2253 and 2260)

19. The columnist in this case was expressing concern about the ethnic diversity of New Zealand’s high immigration over recent years. He singled out several nationalities as those he thought he recognised in a shopping queue. While these groups were not a large component of New Zealand’s immigration, he was using them as an example of “the changing face of New Zealand”. In this context, the references to ethnic groups were not inaccurate or gratuitous in the minority’s view and he was not ascribing any characteristics to them.

20. The columnist did not explain why he was concerned at the ethnic diversity as well as the scale of immigration in recent years, and the clear implication that this did not need to be explained gave the column an unpleasant “dogwhistle” odour. But this sort of opinion is best challenged, in the minority’s view, by open debate rather than objections to its expression.

21. The Council has long stressed the safe guarding of “freedom of expression” in relation to opinion pieces. We find it impossible to distinguish this case from Toailoa also decided by the Council at this meeting. In that case the Council unanimously declined to uphold a similar complaint against an opinion piece.