JOY SUTTON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2412

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Columnists

The Article
The article is a comment piece that appeared in the New Zealand Herald on October 25, 2014. The writer Verity Johnson gives a personal account of her experience when she visited a doctor for advice about her fragile mental state at the time. The writer has chosen to make public a very personal and intimate description of her feelings at a vulnerable time. She was unhappy with the advice she received from the doctor and describes vividly how he appeared to her.
“The doctor looked like an old, evil-tempered elephant. His face looked like it had melted, dripped off his skull and hardened like candle wax.”

The Complaint
Joy Sutton thinks that the article breaches Press Council Principle 7 relating to discrimination and diversity. Ms Sutton says that the article contains hateful and irrelevant adverse comment about the age and appearance of the doctor, which is gratuitous, and is therefore in breach of Principle 7, which states:

Discrimination and Diversity
Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

Editor’s Response
In response the Editor made a number of points:
The article was clearly labeled as comment and used colourful language; the doctor could not be identified; the article made a number of points of public interest and importance around the medical profession’s handling of mental illness; and finally the editor noted the importance of freedom of expression.
The complainant rejected the Herald’s offer to publish a letter in response to the article.

Decision
The writer in this case is a (self advised) young woman, based in Melbourne, who has contributed a series of colourful comment pieces published in the Herald over the last couple of years. She therefore has a track record with Herald readers of giving her personal point of view and that of her age group. In the process she often reveals some of her very personal thoughts and feelings.
The words complained of are undoubtedly an unpleasant description of the doctor who advised Ms Johnson. However, unflattering descriptions and words often appear in media stories, especially comment pieces, about other individuals and classes of people (e.g. “pimply youth”). Principle 7 allows for legitimate discussion of age and other discrimination issues, and the writer clearly feels that age of the doctor was relevant to her treatment by him. While the words complained of are strong, they are in the context of a personal comment piece using colourful language. The reader is likely to observe that the young writer is using language relevant to her mental state at the time, rather than to conclude that this is a general attack on older people.

The Council does not believe that the words in question, in the context of this article, breach the principle cited by the complainant. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow (Acting Chair), Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.