JAMES MACAODHGAIN AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2356

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2013

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Press (Weekend) newspaper published an article on Saturday October 12, 2013 about health data from the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) concerning the increase in chlamydia in the region since 2011. The headline of the article was “Luck of the Irish has downside in sex-disease stats.” The intro read “Irish workers helping with the rebuild are sharing the love but it seems they may also be helping to spread sexual disease.”

The article was illustrated by a cartoon depicting two men in green coats heading into a doorway sign-posted STD Clinic from which emanated the song “If yer Irish come into the parlour.”

The article was also published on Stuff.co.nz on the same date with the headline “Luck of the Irish has sex-disease downside.”

Initial complaints to Stuff were responded to by Mark Stevens, editor of Stuff, who replied that it “wasn’t the best use of figures/information” and some minor correction was made.

The Press Council also received several complaints/enquiries of which four, from Charlie Smyth, Skry Adamson, James MacAodhgain and Justin Devlin were considered at the November meeting.

The complaints are upheld.

The Complaints
Charlie Smyth’s complaint is that both versions of the story were not an accurate reflection of the statistics, have caused considerable offence to the Irish community in New Zealand and overseas, and the accompanying cartoon was “derogatory and blatantly racist.” Moreover, the article’s author has caused further offence through some of her tweets.
He argues that the coverage breached Principle 6 (Discrimination and Diversity).

Skry Adamson complains that the article was not accurate including that the data was not reflected in the headline. The content of the article was also inaccurate in that the CDHB member did not say the increase was the fault of Irish migrants but that it was local women responsible.
The article was xenophobic and misleading causing more of a health issue through misinformation. He questioned how The Press could use such an offensive cartoon and claim it was for the good of the community. He asked that the article be removed from the Stuff website.
He argues that the coverage breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance), Principle 4 (Comment and Fact), Principle 5 (Headlines and Captions) and Principle 6 (Discrimination and Diversity).
James MacAodhgain complains that the online article was not accurate, the headline is incongruous with the story’s content, the basis of the story was that of correlation rather than causation, the quotes from the CDHB member were “derogatory and sexist” and there was no reference to the statistics that supported the claims of the member.
He argues that the coverage breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance), Principle 4 (Comment and Fact), Principle 5 (Headlines and Captions) and Principle 6 (Discrimination and Diversity).
Justin Devlin’s complaint is that version of the story on Stuff.co.nz is a baseless article which, he argues, can be perceived as inciting hatred towards a race of people. The article focuses solely on the Irish although there were numerous other nationalities migrating to Christchurch.
He argues that the coverage breached the principles related to Comment and Fact and Discrimination and Diversity.

The Press Response
There were a number of exchanges between the complainants and Greg Ford, the Weekend editor. Joanna Norris, editor of The Press, responding to the Press Council said
- The paper acknowledged that there were problems with the story of October 12 in particular the introduction of the story which should not have stated that Irish workers were “spreading” sexual diseases;
- Recognising the fault in the story, an item (clarification) was published in the paper’s Putting It Right column in a later publication. In addition, the paper published two letters to the editor including from the President of the Christchurch Irish Society and published a piece from a regular columnist taking issue with the article. The paper had gone a long way in correcting any misinterpretation;
- It was regrettable that the headline may have suggested that a serious topic was being treated flippantly. It does not attribute any causation.
- Whilst the cartoon does “indulge itself with a stereotype”, the paper does not accept that the cartoon was derogatory and blatantly racist. The editor does concede that it does give a “misleading impression” that the paper was being “offhanded about the matter”;
- In terms of the data, the CDHB had recorded a higher number of Irish workers presenting at the clinic. That is factual and public. The collection of information involved Irish workers, understandable given the large number arriving in the city for the re-build effort;
- The CDHB will collect information of other nationalities and the paper will publish these as well. The matter is serious so it will report on the issue as more information comes to light;
- There was no intention to stigmatise any particular nationality and if the introduction conveyed that, then the paper acknowledges this and regrets it.
Decision
The article reported an increase in the number of confirmed cases of chlamydia in Christchurch. It also reported an increase in the number of Irish nationals making appointments for investigation and treatment, presumably commensurate with the increasing numbers of Irish in Christchurch as part of the rebuild. There was no statistical information given to support the statements linking the Irish to the chlamydia.

The article reported that in 2011 there had been 282 confirmed cases of chlamydia, and so far this year there were 320. However it also reported that an additional 500 people had been tested for chlamydia. Given an increase of only 38 cases (YTD) from 500 additional tests it is an unfounded assumption that an increase of Irish appointments at the clinic was indicative of their “spreading the disease.”

In fact the article states “There are no concrete figures to analyse who is giving chlamydia to whom” and that a CDHB member said New Zealand historically had high rates of STIs and he guessed it would be local women passing infections on to rebuild workers rather than the other way round. (our emphasis).

The link between the Irish nationals and the chlamydia statistics was of the newspaper’s making and not supported by any reported information. The Council upholds the complaints on this limb on grounds of Principle 1 Inaccuracy and Principle 4 Comment and Fact

Likewise the headline “Luck of the Irish has downside in sex-disease stats” is inaccurate and this complaint is upheld.

All the complainants alleged a breach of Principle 6 Discrimination. Given the misrepresentation of statistics and the treatment given to the story (headline, cartoon) it is difficult to see the whole as anything but discriminatory against the Irish. This complaint is upheld.

Cartoons are generally regarded as opinion and are given wide licence to offend. However, in this case the cartoon was not on the op-ed pages, but was an illustration for a news article. As such it does not attract the same dispensation. While it may have had appeal to some, in the context of what The Press said was a serious public interest story it was inappropriate at least, and offensive to many. In the context of this complaint the cartoon was an integral part of the article, and as such the complaint is upheld.

The final matter is the reporter’s response, using Twitter, to those complaining about her article. She engaged with complainants in a manner that was flippant and rude. The Press Council views her response as highly unprofessional and would suggest the editor addresses this matter with staff.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.