STEPHEN GRAHAM AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2513

Council Meeting: JUNE 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Discrimination

Overview

Stephen Graham complained about the tenor of an article on women’s sport, and in particular women’s cricket, by Mark Reason published in theThe Press. The by-lined article opened by referring to the comments of former Indian Wells tennis tournament Chief Executive Raymond Moore that women tennis players should go down on their knees every night and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born.

It went on to describe women’s cricket as: riding on the coat tails of men; of low public interest; and something you would only watch if you had a daughter in the team. The writer said the notion of a women’s Twenty20 contest was “laughable” and like asking men to wear Christian Laboutin heels and sashay down the catwalk in a plunging Versace gown. The Women’s T20 should have “sponsored by men” next to it. He went on to describe some supporters of women’s cricket as “feministas” jumping out of “their iron hooped skirts”. Women’s cricket should go down on their knees to thank God that Kohli and Gayle were born. Towards the end of the article the writer said “I’m going to be a happy sexist and only watch the men from now on.”

The Complaint

Stephen Graham complains the article is inaccurate, sexist and degrading to women.

On matters of accuracy he disagrees with the factual basis of a number of statements in the article including many of those outlined above. He says he watches women’s cricket even though he does not have a daughter in the team; women’s world cup cricket has a long history well pre-dating current high profile male players; and the writer’s comments against women’s cricket could equally be applied to junior, veteran’s and disabled cricket. He notes Reason’s claim that the “stadium was empty” at a recent women’s T20 game as factually inaccurate, on the evidence of a published photograph.

Mr Graham says the writer is a self-confessed sexist, and the article takes a sexist and degrading attitude to women cricketers, especially to the White Ferns who were playing in India at the time of the article’s publication.

The Response

The deputy editor notes in her response that Mark Reason is an independent writer whose views do not necessarily reflect those of the paper.

On the issue of accuracy, she says that the statements about the empty stadium and the low numbers of spectators likely to watch a women’s game are hyperbole and comment. The suggestion that that women should go down on their knees to Kohli and Gayle is a turn of phrase to highlight the star power of those players, which could not reasonably be interpreted as a factual statement. The reference to the financial dependency of women’s cricket is not rendered inaccurate because it fails to refer to other cricket competitions funded by men’s cricket.

On the complaints of sexism the deputy editor says “I do not take issue with your assessment of these statements as sexist. Opinions expressed by columnists are not necessarily shared nor endorsed byThe Press. However, The Press does vigorously support the right of columnists to express their honestly held opinions, including those we do not agree with and indeed those which may be offensive to others.”

The fact that the writer’s views may be considered sexist is not seen as a breach of Press Council principles.The Press is a strong supporter of freedom of expression. The Press invited the complainant to provide a letter in response for publication.

The Decision

Under the heading of discrimination and diversity, the Press Council’s principles provide that issues such as gender and race are legitimate subjects for discussion; opinions may be expressed in these areas, but gratuitous emphasis is to be avoided. Other principles draw a clear distinction between fact and opinion. Opinion pieces require a foundation of fact, but balance is not essential.

Mark Reason is a sports writer whose by-lined articles are usually in the bold style typical of sports commentary. This column goes further and is akin to a rant. It uses hyperbole, exaggeration and mockery to make its points. The fact that the stadium was not empty is the clearest example of inaccuracy. But in the Council’s view this does not reach a standard of “material” inaccuracy in the context of the higher threshold allowed for opinion pieces.

The article will be viewed by many as sexist and unbalanced in tone and expression. The newspaper itself does not disagree with this view, as seen above.The article was offensive to a number of people besides the complainant. It is worth noting, though, that its views were supported by some public comments on Stuff.In this case the writer had strongly held opinions about the financial strength and public appeal of women’s cricket. The gender issue itself was a necessary basis of the opinion piece. The writer is entitled to his views, which are not without some factual basis in the financial situation of men’s versus women’s cricket. Many readers would find the way he chose to express his views unpleasant. But in the Council’s view these do not reach the threshold of gratuitous comment, although they come close. The writer makes no pretence of fairness, and by describing himself as a sexist acknowledges that there will be other views.

Opinion pieces allow for the expression of views, including those which are potentially offensive and controversial. Most readers are likely to have seen the by-lined column as containing colourfully expressed, deliberately provocative views - from which they would feel free to differ.

Conclusion

The Press Council has taken a consistent view that opinion pieces should be allowed a high threshold for freedom of expression, even where these may be offensive to a number of readers.

The complaint is therefore not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens stood down from consideration of this complaint to ensure the public member majority.