MARISE MURRIE AGAINST MASSIVE MAGAZINE

Case Number: 2509

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Massive

Ruling Categories: Offensive Language

Overview

  1. Three complaints, from Elspeth Tilley Louise Collins and Marise Murrie, were lodged with the Press Council againstMassive Magazine over an article entitled “Massey University bans ginger students for 2017” because it was offensive and harmful to red-haired students.
  2. The complaints are not upheld.

Background

3. Massey University’s student magazine Massive featured a story in its March issue entitled “Massey University bans ginger students for 2017”, which purported to cover an announcement by the university to exclude all red-haired students from study from 2017 onwards.

4. The feature, tagged ‘satire' under the headline, opened with a report of a press conference at which Massey Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey confirmed the university’s decision to announce the ban.

5. The report is clearly a spoof, and is comprised of fictitious quotes by Maharey, Prime Minister John Key, Labour’s Tertiary spokesman Chris Hipkins, a parent, a “ginger-haired” student, and three presidents of university student associations. The comments generally deride redheads, to a greater or lesser degree.

The Complaint

6. The Massive story prompted three complaints to the Press Council, all of which had a common theme, that the article was discriminatory, offensive and harmful to red-haired people.

7. Because of the similar nature of the complaints, we will deal with them altogether.

8. Elspeth Tilley cited three principles: 1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, 7. Discrimination and Diversity, and 12. Corrections. She also complained that the article was in breach of the Bill of Rights Act.

9. Louise Collins and Marise Murrie separately complained that the article was offensive but neither cited which Press Council principles they believed it had breached.

10. Ms Tilley’s complaint is against Massive Magazine, its editor Carwyn Walsh andMassive’s Media Advisory Board, and relates not only to the article but also toMassive’s complaint resolution process.

11. On Principle 1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Ms Tilley complains that the ‘quotes’ attributed to real people are not accurate. She specifically objects to a ‘quote’ from MUSA president Nikita Skipper and says Ms Skipper has denied they were her words.

12. Ms Tilley complains that simply tagging the article ‘satire’ does not go far enough to communicate to readers that although real people were quoted, they did not say, and do not endorse the words attributed to them. She maintains the article is misleading.

13. She alleges that a number of critical comments, including her own, that were posted onMassive’s Facebook page, were deleted while supporting comments had been left in place. She accuses the magazine of manipulating the content of its Facebook messages by deleting critiques, and calls it “unethical in the extreme”. Although she is not a student (she is a staff member at the university), she is nevertheless a legitimate part of their readership and has a right to ask relevant questions and pose alternative viewpoints.By deleting the Facebook comments critical of the story,Massive did not give the opposition a fair voice.

14. On Principle 7. Discrimination and Diversity, the complainant alleges the entire article “incites racial hatred against people with Celtic racial heritage who have genetically endowed red hair”.Labelling the article ‘satire’ did not prevent it from doing harm, she says. The article caused significant harm by “promoting blatant and quite nasty stigmatisation and demonization of redheads”.

15. On Principle 12. Corrections, the complainant says her right of reply was interfered with by the removal of her comments from the version published on Facebook.

16. Ms Tilley further contends that the article contravened the Human Rights Act 1993, by expressing hostility against red-haired people.

17. Louise Collins, a “mature student” at Massey University, expressed strong disapproval of the “ginger satire” story. She also referred to the hurt and distress that those with ginger hair can suffer at the hands of their peers. “That a university magazine shows such blatant disregard for students’ mental health in this day and age is disgusting,” she says.

18. Marise Murrie, who is the parent of a red-haired student at the university, says the article sends the message to current and future red-haired students that they do not have a right to feel safe, welcome and equally treated. It might have been an attempt at satire, she says, but it missed and is in poor taste. “Satire mocks the powerful, this mocks the already victimised.”

The Response

19. Because of the similarity of their complaints, Massive’s Media Advisory Board provided the three complainants with a single response, which acknowledged the concerns raised, in particular the fact that many viewed the article as promoting bullying and harassment against red-haired students, and some saw the article as racist.

20. It provided an explanation by the author for the thinking behind the article, which was intended “to criticise the foolishness of society on the timeless issue of prejudice against minority groups”.

21. The article was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for a complete ban on Muslims entering the US, the author said. The sole intention was to shock readers and highlight the open way in which discrimination has now become acceptable in politics – and, as a consequence, wider society. “No matter how crude or prejudicial Donald Trump’s statements again Muslims are, his poll numbers continue to dwarf his rivals, which shows that huge sections of the public, labelling themselves as the “silent majority”, are clearly comfortable with remarks that are prejudicial and bash minority groups”, the author says.

22. The author points to the fact that several critics had suggested if the article had made jokes about gender, sexual orientation or race “everyone would be up in arms about it”.“This is precisely the point I was trying to make through this article – the point that prejudice against minorities is wrong.”

23. The Massive board says the writer’s explanation fits the definition of satire. It says it does not condone racism, and it expects that its audience of university-based readers was capable of critical analysis and would draw its own conclusions.Many other respondents, the board says, have indicated they understood the writer’s intent, that the article is a satirical critique of intolerance in society.

24. Massive aims to be the voice of Massey University students, not the staff of Massey University and is independent of Massey University, MUSA, ASA, EXMSS and MAWSA.The content ofMassive is independent of influence from all of these institutions, it says.

25. In a further response to the Press Council, the board reports that none of the actual student politicians “quoted” for the story took issue with their names being used, and not one had contacted the board with any concerns.

26. It acknowledges that some comments on Facebook of a bullying nature had been removed: “If we have removed a post that was not of this nature we apologise and ask for some lenience for this mistake”.It would have occurred at what it calls a “time of tremendous personal pressure on the new editor”. The situation was rectified in the next issue where “we provided a fair voice to the debate around this article”.

The Complainant’s Response

27. In her final statement, Ms Tilley says Massive had misunderstood her complaint, which is about ethical behaviour: she says she did not questionMassive’s intent, or the means (satire), but the end. The article crossed an ethical line by causing harm to people based on genetic characteristics.

28. She complains that Massive has never apologized for the harm it has caused, and in his latest editorial, the editor refuses to do so. She also complains that the comments selected for print did not cover the key issue of harm raised by multiple commentators.

The Decision

29. Student magazines, by their very definition, are well known for pushing the boundaries of what may be considered decency with content that is often provocative, irreverent and offensive. This is not a media channel for the faint hearted. The Press Council acknowledges the genre and is prepared to make allowances for it as long as essential principles are maintained.

30. The use of satire or gossip by any publication is also an accepted genre, which calls for special consideration in any complaint.

31. Massive magazine and its board have strongly defended the story as a satirical piece meant to highlight the arbitrary nature of racism and discrimination.

32. The complainants argue that the article breaches Press Council principles because its cruel language caused harm to an already marginalised sector of the community.

33. The Press Council’s role here is not to argue to merits or otherwise of an article in a student magazine, however offensive or inept, but to determine whether it breaches any principles.

34. Ms Tilley argues a strong case against Massive magazine, citing many examples of poor practice, from the wording of the article itself, to the editor’s responses, and the advisory board’s handling of the complaint. She reminds the Council that as New Zealand’s media watchdog it needs to protect all New Zealanders from racial abuse, and opines it should protect redheads from harm just as it should protect any other group.

35. Ms Tilley’s comments are duly noted, and the Council has some sympathy for her arguments: ridiculing people for the things they were born with does not resonate well with many of its members, and some of the comments in the article purporting to be quotes were puerile in the extreme.

36. However, this is a classic case of student satire that must be considered in context: the article was clearly labelled as such, and from the very first paragraph cannot be taken seriously. We agree withMassive’s board when it says that its university-based audience was capable of critical analysis and would draw their own conclusions.

37. As has been stated by the Press Council many times before, complainants do not have the right not to be offended.

38. The Council would be concerned if the magazine had intentionally edited out all comments critical of the article. However, it notes that the copy of the article provided to the Council with the complaints included two substantial comments from Ms Tilley posted on 12 and 14 March. We are satisfied that the removal of other comments posted by her was likely to have been accidental. We note the magazine has apologised for this.

39. The complaints are not upheld.

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