TONY NOBLE AGAINST BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

Case Number: 1067

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2006

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Offensive Language

Tony Noble complained that the Bay of Plenty Times failed to meet the professional standards expected of newspapers when it published a letter, in the Letters to the Editor section, on 25 April 2006, which, in his view, incited racial hatred and disharmony. The complaint is not upheld.


Background
Although Mr Noble’s specific complaint focussed on this particular letter, he also submitted examples of others, published in the same newspaper, which were similar in tone and content, and sharply disparaging of aspects of Maori leadership and “Maori policy” in general. Such correspondence, largely from but not confined to one letter writer, had obviously deeply concerned the complainant because he also submitted attempts to counter such views, published over his name in the Letters to the Editor section. This exchange of opinions had been ongoing for more than two years.

That material lies outside the three month time period allowed for complaints to the Press Council and was taken into account as background information only. Mr Noble’s complaint is confined to the letter of April 25, 2006. However, the background material was useful to the Council in placing that final letter in the context of a series of engagements from two widely divergent points of view. The Press Council notes that the exchanges became almost a pattern with vigorous, even abusive criticism of Maori being followed by letters from Mr Noble – letters which were moderate in content and conciliatory in tone, at least until his response to the Anzac Day letter.

On May 13, a response from Mr Noble was published in the newspaper. Here, he called the content of the April 25 letter “disgusting” but he reserved plenty of criticism for the Bay of Plenty Times, commenting that printing such a letter was “an even greater disgrace” and called for a full and unconditional apology and a “public undertaking never to print such poisonous vilification ever again”.


The Complaint
Mr Noble complained that the April 25 letter in the Bay of Plenty Times went far beyond robust debate when it included “specific threats directed at the Maori people”. He pointed to a specific comment in that letter i.e. “those who preferred to be called Maori rather than New Zealanders . . .should have their citizenship renounced . . . their passports cancelled” and they “should either become New Zealanders . . . or face deportation”.

In his final comment to the Press Council, he submitted that this particular letter had transgressed against professional standards of journalism in failing to protect a vulnerable ethnic minority from threats. In summary, he posed the question “Is it acceptable . . . for a newspaper to print . . .threats directed against an ethnic minority?”

The Newspaper’s Response
Bay of Plenty Times editor Craig Nicholson defended his decision to publish the April 25 letter. He pointed out that the newspaper’s role was not to censor opinions held by readers, rather it was to “encourage discussion and opinion on issues of the day”. He added that Mr Noble had every right to object to such views as expressed in the April 25 letter and stressed that Mr Noble was welcome to exercise that right through his own letters to the editor.

In a further and final letter to the Press Council, Mr Nicholson reiterated that censoring the opinions of the newspaper’s letter writers would inevitably lead to restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. He asked the question . . . given that Maori issues can cause division in society, “should we ignore that division or allow people to speak their minds?”


Conclusion
In complaints concerning letters to the editor the Press Council has frequently pointed to the wording in the Council’s Statement of Principles, “selection and treatment of letters for publication are the prerogative of the editors.

However, Principle 12 adds that “editors are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest in the correspondents’ views”. Certainly, the strongly worded views of the correspondent complained about by Mr Noble were usually balanced at a later date – by the complainant’s own contributions to the Letters to the Editor section. It also seems that the April 25 letter arose from a local issue, the handing back of Mauao or Mount Maunganui to the tangata whenua of that region. It was therefore likely to be of considerable public interest.

Even the editor seems to have had some misgivings about the “fairness” of the Anzac Day letter. On May 20, the newspaper published a piece “From the Editor’s Desk” in which Mr Nicholson summarised a conversation he had had with a caller who had also been alarmed by the opinions of the same letter-writer that Mr Noble complained about. The editor said he realised that “there was a very fine line between the right to an opinion and outright racist comments” and that he had to ensure that the newspaper was “not just an outlet for people to express their prejudices”.

Despite such possible misgivings, the editor of the Bay of Plenty Times considered that the correspondent was “still entitled to his opinion in a democracy”. On balance, and weighing the issue of “fairness” against the right to express one’s opinion, the Press Council accepts the editor’s right to publish the letter.

No doubt the complainant found the letter of April 25 offensive and disturbing in its threats against some Maori people. No doubt others also found that letter offensive. But that is the nature of living within a democratic country where citizens can express even their prejudices. Freedom of expression is the freedom to express opinions that may be offensive or abhorrent or just plain wrong.

A counter to the 25 April letter is not to ban the expression of such views, rather it is for the public to respond with less prejudice and more reason.

The complaint is not upheld.

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.