GEOFFREY ARNOLD AGAINST THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2230

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Columnists
Editorial Freedom
Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

Geoffrey Arnold has complained that an opinion column published by The Dominion Post in December 2011 and carried on the Stuff website is discriminatory and offensive. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
A column by Dominion Post regular columnist Rosemary McLeod that appeared on the Stuff website and syndicated to The Press has been the subject of two complaints to the Press Council.
The column, headlined on The Dominion Post’s section of Stuff, Short can be troublesome or seriously dangerous, discussed the behaviour of small dogs by making comparisons with short men.

Complaint
Mr Arnold, a New York resident, complained to the Dominion Post that the columnist was arbitrary and misguided and the column was a degrading assault on a group of individuals. He said it expressed a casual contempt for short people and encouraged prejudice which was demeaning to everyone.
He said the column was not clearly labelled as opinion and its publication was ‘reckless’.
Mr Arnold also complained that the column was inaccurate in comparing a high-profile New Zealand personality of small stature who was bankrupt and an American personality who was taller – and successful. He said the American had also filed for bankruptcy twice.
He questioned whether the column would have been published if it had referred to other minority groups, such as Black people or Jews.

The Newspaper’s Response
Editor Bernadette Courtney, replying for The Dominion Post and also on behalf of Andrew Holden, editor of The Press, said they were surprised that the complaint had come from the United States, a country that guarantees its citizens free speech. The columnist and the newspapers’ website were simply exercising that freedom.
She said the column appeared in the comment or opinion sections in both cases.
Rosemary McLeod was writing primarily for a New Zealand readership and the word ‘bankrupt’ had a different meaning in the United States. It was a fact that the New Zealand businessman referred to was bankrupt while the American was not.
The Press Council has previously upheld the right of columnists to provoke and be outrageous.
Ms Courtney said the columnist was not advocating prejudice against short men. “To equate what were light-hearted comments – a style familiar to regular readers – with prejudice against black or Jews is offensive.”
The editors reiterated their offer to both complainants they would consider publishing a letter to the editor from them.

Further Comment
Mr Arnold said that while the method of filing for bankruptcy may differ between New Zealand and the United States, the word bankruptcy had the same meaning. It was false and misleading to imply that the American personality had never been bankrupt.

Discussion
Two complaints about this column have come to the Press Council; both from the United States and both asserting that the column has encouraged prejudice against short men.
Firstly, the Council notes that any inaccuracy on the bankruptcy issue was not sufficiently material to uphold the complaint.
The column appeared in the comment/opinion sections of the two newspaper’s sections on the Stuff website, and is clearly the opinion of the columnist.
There are two considerations here – the matter of freedom of expression for writers of opinion pieces and the question of whether the column has encouraged prejudice or discrimination against short men.
In the context of a light-hearted piece, the Press Council does not believe the column promotes widespread contempt for short men. Rosemary McLeod’s style is familiar to her regular readers. Not everyone would have liked it, nor agreed with her. Some readers would have smiled. Some might have even been affronted on behalf of chihuahuas. But it’s a step too far to say it should have banned.
Freedom of expression is one of the Council’s guiding principles. The Council notes that both complainants were given the opportunity of expressing their own opinions through a letter to the editor. They declined to do so.

Conclusion
For the reasons outlined above, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

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

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.