Case Number: 765

Council Meeting: December 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Offensive Language
Taste Lack of

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by G.F.Sharp of Invercargill against the Southland Times.

On Friday 8 October, as part of its coverage of the Rugby World Cup, the Southland Times published a report about the pending match between England and the All Blacks, which carried the headline "Pommie ponces anger Abs."

Mr Sharp complained directly to the Press Council that the headline was "distasteful in the extreme, inflammatory and derogatory."; he also found it "racist." Mr Sharp had approached the editor of the paper who replied he saw nothing wrong with the headline. When the complaint was formally referred to him in writing, the editor, while accepting that Mr Sharp had been offended by the words used, could not agree the headline was either inflammatory or racist. The editor offered to consider a letter from Mr Sharp for publication in the Public Opinion column of the newspaper. Mr Sharp chose to refer the complaint to the Press Council.

The complaint turns essentially on the meaning attached to the two words "pommie" and "ponce." The Press Council does not share Mr Sharp's interpretation. The headline belittles the England team, but sports journalism would be poor stuff if that was disallowed. The actual words, in the context of the article, are neither racist nor derogatory. "Pommie" is probably of Australian derivation, but has been in wide use in New Zealand since World War II. It implies a certain mild condescension but is not racist. "Ponce" is not a word in common use in New Zealand and for that reason is not included in the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English. In the most recent edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, it is entered as both noun and verb with a general connotation of living on a prostitute's earnings; moving or behaving in an idle or effete manner; as a verb it is also used in the sense of smartening up, in a flashy manner.

The Press Council doubts many New Zealand readers would associate the word "ponce" with living on a prostitute's earnings, especially when applied to an international rugby team. Rather the connection would most likely be with precious, effete or show-off behaviour. On this basis the Council accepts the point made by the editor that the article in question reported that the New Zealand rugby team regarded the England side as "a bunch of arrogant show ponies who talk too much and rate themselves too highly."

Furthermore, some English words are renowned for possessing a variety of quite different meanings. A complainant may not isolate one dictionary meaning and complain solely on the basis of that meaning. The word is used in a headline as a pointer to the substance of the article which had absolutely nothing to do with prostitution. The interpretation of a word is as it is predominantly used in the New Zealand context, and with the article itself. The headline reflected the lead sentence in the story, which is as it should be.

The complaint is not upheld