NICOLAAS FRANCKEN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2087

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2009

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Offensive Language
Politicians
Taste Lack of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

A complaint by Nicolaas Francken about comments appearing on the Stuff.co.nz website has not been upheld.
The Stuff.co.nz website is a news and information website operated by Fairfax Media.
The Complaint
Fairfax invites its readers to post comments in a number of areas on the website. The comments complained about were made in accordance with this policy after the website published the news that Sue Bradford was to resign as a member of Parliament, and commented on Ms Bradford.
The complaint was that several of the comments were unacceptable because they incited hatred, were defamatory, were immoral and showed a complete lack of decency or respect for an elected member of Parliament. Examples given of what were said to be unacceptable comments included “she must never have been beaten as a child”, “It’s a pitbull LOL”, and “Ding Dong, the witch is dead”.
The Website’s Position
The editor of the website apologised to the complainant for any unintended offence that the comments had caused. He did not, however, accept that any of the comments posted incited hatred, were defamatory, were immoral, or showed a lack of decency or respect for an elected MP. His position was that a person choosing public office could expect a level of “opinion” and “comment” directed at the person which might not otherwise be directed at members of the public. He noted that Miss Bradford was a polarizing figure and believed the level of public comment about her resignation reflected that.
The editor noted that all comments were moderated before going live and that there were more comments not accepted than were actually approved. The position was reconsidered after Mr Francken’s complaint and some of the comments already on the website were removed and others added.
Discussion
The comments are not the views of the website or its editors. They are analogous to letters to editors in a newspaper.
The Council has in respect of letters to editors, held that politicians may be subject to more robust criticism than others; those comments can include disparaging remarks that are newsworthy; a correspondent can express strong and even prejudiced views; a letter must not incite violence; but nevertheless a politician is entitled to fair treatment and the letters to editor section is not a forum for personal attacks.
Stuff has its terms and conditions for accepting comments. They provide, amongst other things, that comments will not be posted if offensive, vulgar, defamatory, or incite violence or hatred.
Ms Bradford is a politician who expresses strong views and has both strong supporters and strong detractors. As a politician, she could expect robust and strong criticism. The issue is whether some of the comments incited hatred, or went beyond the limit of robustness. The complaint is not from Ms Bradford herself and it is not intended to consider the possibility of defamation.
Comment sections are appearing frequently on websites. They are now part of the news and media scene. The comments in this case included both favourable and unfavourable comments on Ms Bradford.
The particular comment which was said to incite hatred was the reference to a pitbull. It was suggested the term was used because many people hate pitbulls. The Council does not accept this inference. The inference which the Council takes is that Ms Bradford is a person who once she got her teeth into something never let go. Some would see this as complimentary rather than disparaging.
Some of the comments are very robust and were near the borderline. However, the Council takes the view that there are always likely to be strong views expressed in the case of an MP who was high profile and was in many respects a crusader. On balance, it does not uphold the complaint.
It does note, however, that an editor of a website who invites comments should be particularly vigilant that the comments section is not allowed to become simply a forum for personal attacks, and close monitoring is recommended.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.