HILARY LAPSLEY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2618

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Upheld in Part with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Hilary Lapsley complains that a New Zealand Herald online article dated 2 August 2017, carrying the original headline, ‘Best Tweets about Jacinda’s womb’ breaches the following NZ Press Council principles:

  • Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
  • Principle 2: Privacy
  • Principle 6: Headlines and Captions
  • Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity

The majority of the Press Council has upheld the complaint under Principle 7 – 8:2.

[2] The article discusses the announcement of Jacinda Ardern as the new Labour Party Leader and questions put to her about her plans for having children including an on-air interview with Mark Richardson on theAM Show.

[3] In the article there is a conversation between Mark Richardson and Jacinda Ardern where Mr Richardson has said in relation to asking Ms Ardern about her intention of having children, “If you are the employer of a company you need to know that type of thing from the woman you are employing…the question, is it okay for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?”

[4] Ms Ardern responded to Mr Richardson by saying, “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job, or have job opportunities.” She had also said to Mr Richardson that it was most definitely not okay for an employer to ask that of a potential employee in a job interview.

[5] The article prompted a number of responses via twitter on the same day, 2 August 2017 including a response by the NZ Human Rights Commission which served to “remind everyone that it is not okay for employers to ask that question.”

[6] The complaint file captured the twitter responses from 11 tweeters including the Human Rights Commission and the tweet that the article was premised on, as follows: “I just wanna hear about some policy; Don’t waste my time with pie jokes or querying potential womb statuses. Election is coming.”

The Complaint

[7] The complaint is based on a NZ Herald Lifestyle article that appeared online dated 2 August 2017.

[8] Dr Lapsley has complained the article breaches four NZ Press Council principles. She has commented on the article headline, ‘Best Tweets about Jacinda’s womb’ and has described the headline as being “outrageously disrespectful.” She further comments, “I would think it’s unacceptable” and, it is also “sexist”.

[9] Dr Lapsley has added weight to her complaint by providing the following example (which supports the alleged breach of principle 7), “I just couldn’t imagine a headline saying ‘best tweets about Bill’s [English] testicles’ for example.”

[10] Dr Lapsley has described the Herald’s headline as discriminatory, “They could have used less invasive ways of reporting on the issue of whether it was okay to ask Ms. Ardern about her intentions around parenthood, as they showed when they later changed the headline to refer to ‘baby plans’ rather than ‘womb’.”

[11] In further correspondence with the NZ Herald, Dr Lapsley extends her comments about the headline and thus describes the article headline as being “very offensive and degrading” and “not up to your usual standards as a newspaper.” Principle 6: Headlines and Captions

[12] The article originally carried two headlines:

The shortened version: “The best tweets about Jacinda’s womb” appeared on the website’s homepage.

The best tweets about whether Jacinda’s womb is any of our business” was published above the online story.

[13] Dr Lapsley’s complaint also includes the breach of three additional Press Council principles.

Although Dr Lapsley has not attributed specific wording towards the alleged breaches, the wording from her original complaint will be applied to the following three principles in The Decision section of this paper:

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – this principle outlines the requirement for accurate content, reporting with fairness to each party, when there is more than one involved, and balanced reporting.

Principle 2: Privacy – this principle refers to privacy of person, space and personal information.

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity – this principle refers to issues of gender amongst many other categories. It also highlights that gratuitous emphasis should not be

The Response

[14] In a response to Dr Lapsley about the change in the article headline, Senior Newsroom Editor atNZ Herald, Oskar Alley explained that with any article on the NZ Herald website there are “two versions of headline” for the story. One headline is limited to 43 characters and is therefore shorter and then the full-length version.

[15] This article carried three headlines and Mr Alley has explained that the headline was re-purposed in the evening to read “The best tweets about whether Jacinda’s baby plans are any of our business”. He says it is common practice for theHerald to re-surface popular articles from earlier in the day for an evening audience which includes refreshing the headline. He also denies that the headline was changed in response to a complaint or negative feedback.

[16] Mr Alley explained that the headline accurately summarised the content of the article beneath it, specifically a tweet which was posted at 4.40pm 1 August 2017, which read:

“I just wanna hear about some policy; Don’t waste my time with pie jokes or querying potential womb statuses. Election is coming.”

[17] Mr Alley went on to further explain to Dr Lapsley that the Herald website had “published many articles surrounding the ascension of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour leadership and the public reaction to the fact she was asked about her personal family plans. This article captures the social media reaction to this debate.”

[18] The Herald did not accept that the headline was an attempt to “sexualise”, “degrade” nor “disrespect” Ms Ardern. The headline was “simply a sassy entry point into an article canvassing a debate that had played out publicly all day.”

[19] Mr Alley in his response has remarked on his modus operandi in providing a response to a reader complaint in the context of Dr Lapsley’s intention to base her complaint on the four aforementioned NZ Press Council principle breaches, “Ordinarily at this stage, I would dutifully respond to each of the Press Council principles Dr Lapsley claims have been breached (and she has cited just about all of them). Instead I submit that Principle 6 is the relevant principle and in this case the headline accurately reflected a comment contained in the article (Cate Owen’s tweet).”

[20] As part of his response to the complaint by Dr Lapsley, Mr Alley has included an article by Human Rights Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue which is essentially a response to the public queries that Ms Ardern had received on television and radio about her future plans to have a family. In reference to the language used within the article Mr Alley has suggested, “Ms Blue repeatedly references Ms Ardern’s womb – and I submit that if it is appropriate language for a Human Rights Commissioner to use publicly then it must stand to reason that it is also acceptable for mainstream media to do so.”

[21] Mr Alley has acknowledged that Dr Lapsley did find the article headline “distasteful”.

The Decision

[22] Before turning to discuss the complaint, it is necessary to address the point that Dr Lapsley has based her complaint on the breach of four Press Council principles as stated earlier in this decision. However, in addressing the complaint, Mr Alley has stated “Instead I submit that Principle 6 is the relevant principle…” Principle 6 Headlines and Captions

[23] As this is a principle that is agreed between the parties, this will be the first principle that will be addressed and then the remaining three principles will then be considered for the sake of completeness and as an acknowledgement that the NZ Press Council did accept the complaint from Dr Lapsley on that basis.

[24] The headline complained about does comply with Principle 6 “…should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.” The use of the word ‘womb’ in the headline was also captured in the tweet which was the basis for the article. Therefore the Press Council has ruled that the complaint in relation to Principle 6 is not upheld.

[25] The Principle 1 states that “publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance… and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.” The content of the article satisfied the requirement set out in Principle 1 and there was no specific querying of the article content per se. The consideration for this principle can therefore be set aside. The Press Council agreed unanimously that this principle has not been breached and therefore this is not upheld.

[26] The Principle 2 refers to privacy of person, space and personal information. In this matter for consideration, Ms Ardern has been questioned on her future plans for having children. Ms Ardern had recently been announced as the new Labour Party leader, a very public role especially in an election year. As Ms Ardern has openly engaged in public dialogue about the subject of her future plans for a family this principle has not been breached. Not upheld.

[27] The final principle to be considered is Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity. Dr Lapsley contended the headline was discriminatory in referring to Ms Adern in a sexualised and sexist manner in a way that would not happen to a male politician; she couldn’t imagine an article headline carrying a message about a male politician’s testicles. In relation to this principle the majority of the Press Council members agree and uphold the complaint under Principle 7.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens and Chris Darlow dissented from this decision and would not have upheld under Principle 7.