SUSAN BENTON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2488

Council Meeting: MARCH 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

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

Overview

Susan Benton complained that coverage by Stuff.co.nz of an alleged lewd act by Australian rugby league player Mitchell Pearce unnecessarily publicised behaviour that was perverted, unlawful and highly offensive, and breached Press Council Principles 3 (Photographs and Graphics) and 11 (Children and Young People).

Background

On January 27, Stuff.co.nz published a story on its website headlined “Rugby league star Mitchell Pearce accused of lewd act”, which covered an incident during which the Roosters captain was filmed simulating a sex act with a dog. The story was accompanied by a video headlined “Mitchell – I wanna **** your dog, I don’t even care anymore”.

The story details the fallout after the video was shown on Nine Network’s A Current Affair and promoted as “some of the most disgraceful behaviour you have ever seen from a footy star”.

It quoted an NRL spokesman, who said they would be working with the player to ensure the matter was dealt with appropriately. Roosters’ management released a statement saying it was conducting an investigation.

The story detailed other similar incidents involving rugby league players as well as previous scandals involving Mitchell Pearce. It said the NRL had cracked down on inappropriate behaviour towards women, and the fact that Pearce is a repeat offender could end his career.

The Complaint

In her complaint, Ms Benton objected to the “continual coverage” of the incident. “This perversion is not newsworthy or worth reading. It is an unlawful act and is highly offensive,” she said.She objected to the headline on the video footage, which she described as highly inappropriate.

She believed “sport stars should be shown as good role models for young people”.

In response to the editor of Stuff’s defence of the coverage, the complainant said: “I am not interested in his opinion, this article is offensive sexual perversion.”

The Response

The editor of Stuff.co.nz Patrick Crewdson, disagreed with the complainant’s contention that the incident was not newsworthy. Mitchell Pearce is the captain of a high-profile sports team, he said, and “for him to have committed a lewd act that is under investigation by both his team and by the NRL’s integrity unit and is likely to have repercussions for his career is certainly newsworthy.”

He said that by the time the complainant made contact with him on January 29, Stuff had published 14 related articles. He said Stuff was not alone in having covered the story. “I would suggest it would be difficult to find a major media outlet in New Zealand or Australia that did not run it,” he said.

He maintained that Stuff’s coverage was straightforward and factual, and did not revel in gratuitous detail. In the interests of good taste, the video clip did not include the actual incident in question even though footage was available and had aired unabridged in Australia.

The editor said the story did not breach Principle 3 as it did not involve children or young people. In his opinion, there was nothing in the visual aspect of Stuff’s coverage that contravened Principle 11.

The Decision

The Mitchell Pearce incident on Australia Day received extensive coverage in news media on both sides of the Tasman where rugby league attracts a huge following. While it is perhaps unfortunate that the video included in the Stuff coverage was accessible to anyone, including children, who clicked on it, it did not show the alleged lewd act, and the fact remains that the incident was newsworthy because it involved one of the sport’s highest profile stars who has already been involved in scandals involving alcohol and women.

The complainant believes sports stars should be portrayed only as good role models for young people, which is an idealistic but ultimately unsustainable argument. In a perfect world there would not be such incidents for the media to report on, but bad behaviour by highly paid professional sports people is an all too common theme in the 21st century. To suggest that Stuff, or any other media outlet, should filter out the unsavoury side of sport is to task the media with censoring the news, which goes against journalistic ethics.

The Press Council agrees with the editor’s defence that “while the behaviour reported on was offensive, the coverage was not.”

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.