SARAH MILLER AGAINST MASSIVE MAGAZINE

Case Number: 2496

Council Meeting: MARCH 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Massive

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Discrimination
Nudity and Indecency
Photographs
Taste Lack of

Overview

Massive is Massey University’s student magazine. The cover of the March edition of the magazine featured a graphic illustration of a student bent over, staring straight ahead, clad only in a bra and thigh-high boots, whilst her hair is being pulled by one hand and another hand is on her buttocks. The student is reading a text book titled PSYCH 101. The cover is linked to its feature article which was about students working in the sex industry to support their studies.

On 15 March, Stuff.co.nz covered the complaints about the magazine cover.The Stuff article also covered remedies from the magazine’s editor, Carwyn Walsh, in response to the complaints.

This complaint to the Press Council about the magazine cover has gone to the whole Council through its fast track process.

The Complaint

Sarah Miller complained that as a magazine funded by students, Massive had crossed the line with its cover that depicts non-consenting sexual violence.Ms Miller had access to an advanced copy of that edition because of her role as a student advocate and university budget advisor.She told the Council that she tried to stop the publication of that edition because she believed it would cause harm to students.

Ms Miller acknowledges that the sex worker article itself was a “useful discussion” but says the cover does not give students a choice to not open the magazine.The “flippant tone” of the article’s introduction, when linked with the violent image of the cover, paints a picture of a magazine that does not view sexual violation seriously.The cover undermines the experiences of many people who have been sexually assaulted including students.

The relevant principles are children and young people (Principle 3), discrimination and diversity (Principle 7), and photographs and graphics (Principle 11).

The Response

Massive’s editor responded to Ms Miller and other complainants about the cover via the Massive Facebook page. He also responded by email directly to Ms Miller. The editor explained that Massive’s Media Advisory Board met to discuss the complaints including Ms Miller’s.

The editor had advised Ms Miller by email that as a remedy the Advisory Board will remove the image from its Facebook page and when distributing the magazines will also be covering the stands so as to obscure the cover.

The Massive Editorial Board, in a further response, acknowledged that some readers had read the cover as promoting rape, sexual violence and misogyny. They also advised they had had many messages of support for the cover.

The illustration’s intent was not to depict a rape scene as some had mistakenly believed or a student being forced to participate in a sex act against her will.The illustration accompanied a story investigating the issue of students working in the sex industry to support themselves financially.Although the cover may have been challenging for some, it helped to create discussion on an important issue.It was therefore important for a student publication to discuss a matter that affects some students.The cover will remain part of the print editions of Issue 2, but the remedies mentioned above will be undertaken.The stands obscuring the cover will carry with them a warning and the choice of reading it or not left to students.

THE COMPLAINANT'S FURTHR RESPONSE

Ms Miller remains of the view that the cover “is clearly a depiction of non-consenting sex and is rape”.She argues that the terrified look on the face of the victim and the hair pulling makes the image only readable as non-consenting sex.

The Advisory Board contains no experts in the field of sexual assault and could have obtained advice if the Board was unclear as to what constitutes sexual assault, but did not.Instead the Board has chosen to assume that its reading of the image (as consensual sex) is the only reading possible, despite having been clearly advised by her before publishing that it is an image of sexual violation.Even if one argues that the image is not rape, it was clear from the outset that the image could and would be interpreted as rape, and would cause harm and distress on campus, which it has, she says.It should have never been published on this premise.

Ms Miller also argues that the issue highlights the need for the Press Council to rethink its stance on student magazines as a ‘special case’ where provocation and offence is tolerated.Within the student population, research shows increasing anxiety and mental health concerns. It is also a population where the age group is most at risk of sexual violence. “I’m not sure why student magazines are allowed to have a different standard from the rest of the population, as I think it is important that all people are protected”. Ms Miller therefore asks that the Massive Magazine issue be considered as a ‘normal case’ rather than a ‘special case’.

The Decision

Student newspapers as a genre have a long history of provocation and even offensiveness, and that is to be expected in fiery crucibles such as universities. As well, their choice of language and in-your-face approach to issues are often not for the faint-hearted.

The Press Council acknowledges the genre and is prepared to make some allowances for it, as long as essential principles are maintained. This is not about treating a student magazine as a special case; it’s about acknowledging the genre of the publication.

Moreover, Council’s Principle 7 notes 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.The publication however cannot place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

The crux of the matter lies with the illustration on the cover.It is clear that the image has raised a number of comments including complaints to Massive.The Council does not have any reason to doubt Massive Magazine’s explanation of its intent – that although deliberately intended to be challenging, the intent was not to show any form of sexual violence.The magazine’s remedy acknowledges that some might perceive the cover differently from their intent.

Ms Miller has made a strong case concerning the possible impact the cover might have on some students.Some would agree with her, others would not. She has certainly found the cover offensive but equally it is inoffensive to others.It is not the general role of the Council to adjudicate on notions of good taste and decency particularly when these notions are mutable and fluid.The Council therefore needs to look at the complaint within the context of its principles and the members’ own views of the cover.Editors, or in this case the Editorial Board, risk losing readership when making a call on challenging topics that will cause offence to some (but not others). At the same time they have a responsibility to ensure that important topics which impact on their readership are discussed.The question is does this illustration cause gratuitous offence?

It is the view of the Council that the illustration was not at all realistic and, while acknowledging Ms Miller’s views to the contrary, not one Council member viewed it as depicting an act of sexual assault.The aim of the challenging cover was to illustrate the main story inside – students are involved in the sex industry whilst studying.

The complaint is 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, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.