Case Number: 944

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Discrimination

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Philip Stenning of Wellington against a column in The Dominion Post of 19 June 2003.

In her Broadside piece, headed “One Pom we didn’t need” Rosemary McLeod devoted her first 11 paragraphs to characterising the voice of John Burrett, recently convicted in Wellington in relation to a highly-publicised kidnapping plot. She adduced numerous examples from her experience to convey how grating and unpleasant that voice was to her. This part of the column ended by saying, “It was the voice of a fully fledged egotistical bore who believed he was astonishingly clever. And it was the voice of Poms I have known.”

In the remaining eight paragraphs Rosemary McLeod widened the discussion to question aspects of New Zealand¹s immigration policies, and declared that “if we need millions of immigrants to make this country move ahead.....I would far rather have a country full of Asian faces, if I must absorb another culture, than Poms like this.” In the light of Burrett’s entry to New Zealand, she asked whether we check immigrants’ “psychological profile.” The column ended by asking, “... do we really look back on a golden age of virtual whites-only immigration, and think we did astoundingly well ? Well, here was yet another of those fair-skinned Poms. and yet again our luck ran out.”

The complainant said that the column contained discriminatory and racist content against immigrants of English origins and with English accents, and violated Principle 8 of the Press Council’s principles. He believed the column promoted prejudice and discrimination against English people.

Principle 8 states that publications “should not place gratuitous emphasis on gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability. Nevertheless, where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.”

The editor responded by saying that Ms McLeod was a columnist with a robust and often provocative style. “On this occasion she used an exaggerated stereotype in making a point on immigration, the subject of a long and continuing national debate and a subject she has addressed pungently in several previous columns.” He did not think the word “Pom” was necessarily pejorative, and said it had had mellowed into a “convivially descriptive” term.

In his final comments to the Press Council the complainant reiterated that the use of the word “Pom” in this context was derogatory and insulting, and said that people of English origins should be protected by Principle 8 from “such vitriolic attack.”

The complainant asked the editor if the newspaper would have published any of three alternative versions of Ms McLeod’s column he provided, dealing respectively with a Samoan, a Vietnamese and a Frenchman. The editor did not reply to this challenge, and the Press Council does not intend to comment in detail on it. The Council’s task is to examine published material not hypothetical alternatives, which have an inescapable artificiality.

The Council does not think that Principle 8’s reference to race, which is intended to inhibit the highlighting of people’s racial origins in a context that requires no such emphasis, can be turned into an embargo on uttering opinions, even highly bigoted or lopsided ones, on the ethnic composition of the New Zealand population. Immigration is a hot topic, and strong views are held about it.

The Council believes that this columnist is doing here what she frequently does - stirring things up, provoking, being outrageous. Some, perhaps many, readers won’t have liked what she said in this particular column, but the Press Council does not think it goes beyond what is tolerable in such opinion pieces. In particular, there are clear indicators in the heading and in the text that she has one particular Englishman in her sights in the first part of the column not all English people.

When she does broaden the discussion into immigration policy it is still John Burrett who dominates her comments, which cannot reasonably be seen as so inflammatory or vindictive as to transgress Principle 8. The same is true of her use of the word “Pom”. The most extreme remark in the column is the suggestion that immigrants should have their psychological profile checked, such over-the-top assertions being a familiar tactic of columnists wanting to ram home a point.

Many may have been offended by the column, but it cannot be described as a “vitriolic attack”. Columnists have considerable liberty to express their views.

The complaint is not upheld.

Ms Sue Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.