JACK RUBEN AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2421

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Cartoons
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Jack Ruben complains that a Tom Scott cartoon published in The Dominion Post on December 5, 2014 breached Principle 1 of the Press Council Principles: accuracy, fairness and balance.

Mr Ruben attended the Press Council meeting to speak to his complaint. An invitation to attend was extended to the editor but was declined.

The Cartoon
The cartoon depicts Dr Martin Luther King Jr in front of microphones. To the left side of his head appears a quote from his most famous speech “I have a dream”. The quote refers to the dream of the grandsons of slaves and the grandsons of former slave owners sitting together. The quote is headed in bold, ‘THEN’. On the right-hand side, under the heading ‘NOW’, are the words “I have a dream one day on American streets the grandsons of former slaves can wear hoodies and tuck their hands in their pockets without being shot by white cops”.

The Complaint
Mr Ruben complains that the quote under the heading ‘NOW’ is inaccurate, unfair and lacks balance. He said Martin Luther King would never utter words which he considers to be racially offensive. He stated that Martin Luther King consistently preached inter-racial peace and reconciliation, and would never have used the words that appear on the right-hand side of the cartoon.

The Dominion Post Response
The editor, Bernadette Courtney, stresses that as a columnist, Mr Scott, the cartoonist, was given a wide licence to bring the issues of the day to readers. She states that sometimes this is in a provocative way, but cartooning was integral to it, and it was not for the paper to censor such opinion. Ms Courtney accepted that some cartoons were not to everyone’s taste, but noted that Mr Ruben’s complaint was the only one received by the paper on this cartoon’s content.
Importantly, she continued “cartoons are an important part of any newspaper, and widely used for social and political comment”.

Decision
The fourth paragraph of the preamble to our Principles states clearly that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are inextricably bound. It continues that there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression. We note that freedom of expression is also guaranteed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Principle 4 states that the clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. The page in question was clearly marked ‘opinion’. The Principle concludes, “Cartoons are understood to be opinion”. An expression of opinion is just that, it is not an expression of fact.

The Council has strongly supported the right of newspaper cartoonists to express their views. (See for example: Case Number 2261 Hall v The Dominion Post; 2067 Kiwis for Balanced Reporting on the Middle East v Sunday Star Times; 2269 Bolot v The Press; The Canterbury Refugee Council v The Press). The Council accepts that cartoons can be provocative, thought-provoking, amusing, unkind or indeed offensive. Cartoonists frequently use hyperbole to make the point of the cartoon.

In Mr Ruben’s view Dr King would never have referred to the race of police officers and police officers would not shoot a young black person for wearing a hoodie and having their hands in their pocket. He implied the police would only shoot if they had good grounds. That is his opinion. But he objects to the cartoonist having a contrary opinion. Clearly, it could not be any more than the cartoonist’s opinion of what Dr King may have said or thought given his assassination many years ago. While proffering his own view of what Dr King would have said Mr Ruben would deny the same right to Mr Scott.

Dr King stood up against orchestrated prejudice and bigotry directed towards his people. He spoke out against racial segregation, economic injustice meted out to his people, lynching and disenfranchisement. It is true, as Mr Ruben pointed out; he advocated peaceful and non-violent means of protest.

The shooting of an unarmed young black in Fergusson, Missouri led to widespread protests and comments both in the United States and around the world. The heirs to the legacy of Martin Luther King, including the President of the United States, expressed their concerns. The Scott cartoon did no more than highlight that. While an expression of opinion in New Zealand it would appear that there is a strong body of world-wide opinion aligned with Tom Scott’s opinion.

Mr Ruben does not like Mr Scott’s opinion. However, many people would agree with it. This is an expression of opinion; it does not breach any of the Press Council Principles. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.