R T LAWRENCE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 1065

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Offensive Language

Introduction
R.T. Lawrence has complained about the content of a Bible text published in the “Text for Today” slot in the Weekend Herald (Saturday July 15, 2006). The complaint holds the text to be offensive to non-Christians, of a tenor capable of inciting religious hatred.

The New Zealand Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
Mr Lawrence’s complaint against the New Zealand Herald ensues from his offence at a text from 1 Corinthians 16:22, which – as published - reads: If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ let him be accursed. O Lord, come! (In less colloquial Bible versions, the text commonly reads: If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha – a line generally taken to be a prayer for the second coming).

An agnostic married to a Taiwanese Buddhist, Mr Lawrence says the text is indicative of a newspaper – or newspaper employee - motive of inciting religious hatred. He and his wife found it deeply offensive to be “attacked like this, in public, out of the blue”.

The Complaint
In his complaint, Mr Lawrence, makes the point that modern-day New Zealand is a culturally diverse country, before observing there could be few Bible passages likely to convey as much intolerance. “At this particular time it is hard to imagine why – from a Bible full of alternatives – anyone would wish to choose that particular passage other than to incite religious hatred. Assuming that people working in a newspaper have a moderate knowledge of world affairs, one can only deduce that the selector deliberately nailed a flag to the Herald’s masthead.”

Mr Lawrence goes on to draw a link between the text message and the attitudes fuelling today’s several wars. “If New Zealand’s leading newspaper allows its authority to be used against non-Christians here, it risks inciting the twisted response of some alienated soul who might well do as happened in Bali or the London Underground.”

The Newspaper’s Position
In response, Herald editor Tim Murphy iterates that the text is from the Bible, “reflecting the Christian heritage of New Zealand and continuing a tradition much valued by many readers”. It was but one quotation of six published in any given week, 310 published in a year.

While the sentiment [in this particular text] could have been seen to be ‘vilification’, many of the others would be seen as tolerance, love and forgiveness of both Christian and non-Christian.

He points out that the contents of the Text for Today slot do not reflect the Herald’s own views, saying they are selected on his behalf for a set period in advance. “I am confident that, over time, they range widely across the Bible and show a variety of teachings from the Old and New Testaments. I am sorry that you found that one quote offensive and hope that subsequent texts might be more acceptable to you.”

Conclusion
It is beyond the compass of the Press Council to evaluate the acceptability of the content of the Bible, an ancient document with a diverse range of messages. It is subject to variant interpretations and the meaning of the text in question is itself the subject of scholarly debate. This complaint lies not with the Bible, but with the Herald’s text selection.

There may be some sympathy for Mr Lawrence’s distaste: the suggestion that anyone not following a specific, majority, religious path is accursed, could be offensive to many. But it is unlikely Text for Today is taken widely by readers to reflect the views of the newspaper. Realistically, most readers are likely to have viewed the complained-about words within their context: a line or two from the Bible slotted alongside other locally-produced or syndicated snippets, such as the quotes of the week, and a summary of the week in history.

Finding
For the reasons given above, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.