Case Number: 2644

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Offensive Language
Taste Lack of


On 22 November, Radio New Zealand covered a story on its website titled ‘Explicit joke reignites claims of sexism on council’.The article starts by outlining an incident when one Hamilton City Councillor (Mark Bunting) sent a text to a journalist (Angela Cuming) of a photo image of roadside signs with strong religious and sexual connotations.Ms Cuming shared the images publically. Mr Bunting subsequently apologized and faced a disciplinary hearing as a result.The article then discusses the culture of the Hamilton City Council with various people providing opinions on the level of sexism that has and continues to occur around the Council table.

The Complaint

Tom Frewen has complained about the publication of the images in the RNZ story on their website.He argues that the images are blasphemous and therefore likely to case offense to large numbers of people.Mr Frewen complains that in publishing the images RNZ has breached the Press Council’s Principle 11 which states that “editors should take care in photographic and image selection and treatment….Photographs showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected.”

He makes the further point that the news item was included in an RNZ radio version which, of course, did not include images but rather the presenter referred to ‘a sexually explicit joke [that] played on her name[Cuming]’.

The Response

Radio New Zealand responds by outlining how they investigated Mr Frewen’s complaint.They acknowledge that Mr Frewen found the road signs offensive but argue that the images were published in the context of Councilor Bunting facing a formal hearing after he sent the images to Ms Cuming.Ms Cuming made the images public and it was her tweet that was covered in the story.

RNZ found that there was a strong public interest in knowing the basis of the formal hearing complaint.RNZ points out that they did not repeat the phrases in the story and argues that their responsibility is to report on matters that are offensive but not do so in a way that is offensive.They argue that the offending phrases were neither overly publicized, nor repeated or dwelt on.

RNZ goes on to argue that each time they publish something they weigh up the rights of free speech with the possibility of offence resulting from a decision to publish. They are of the view while members of the public could be offended, this concern is outweighed by the general public’s right to know on what basis Mr Bunting was facing censure.

The Decision

The Press Council takes seriously the importance of free speech and accurate reporting of incidents.While the news item in question was broadcast on air as well as on RNZ’s website, it is the website article that is the subject of this complaint (and within the Press Council’s jurisdiction) and, as such, has been considered as a stand-alone piece and within in the context of other written and on-line publications.

In this case, RNZ has presented the information needed for the public to understand the issue at hand which included publishing images that some will find offensive.

The Press Councils’ view is that RNZ did take care with how the messages and images were used in the article and did not overly emphasize them since they did not repeat the phrases in question in the text.The complaint against Principle 11 is not upheld.

Further, the story provides some comfort that the images in question resulted in the sanction of the Councillor Bunting, showing that they were in no way endorsed or supported by Council.It is also of further comfort that the inappropriateness of the images and resulting sanctions was found news worthy clearly sending the message that such behavior is not acceptable for public office holders.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten and Christina Tay

Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu and Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.