Case Number: 869

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2002

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

The New Zealand Press Council upheld a complaint made by Westlake Girls High School against a New Zealand Herald’s weekend’s front page story in August 2001.

The headline announced ‘No same-sex sambas at this school ball’. The introductory paragraph read ‘Girls at one of New Zealand’s largest single-sex secondary schools have been told they cannot take female partners to the school ball unless they declare themselves lesbians.’ The third paragraph mentioned the requirement of a written note.

The reporter contacted the school Principal Alison Gernhoefer, who was reported as being adamant that neither she nor her staff had issued any such instruction. The school did have a policy of not allowing girls from other schools but Mrs Gernhoefer explained that the main reason for this was to stop the event being dominated by girls. In her complaint Mrs Gernhoefer explained that the girls from the school were able to come with female partners from their own school and in fact about 60 of the girls did attend as a group from the school.

The newspaper article then went on to record third party comments from the Human Rights Commission, Women’s Affairs Minister and the Westlake Boys High School on the report that girls had to declare themselves lesbians before attendance at the ball with a same sex partner. Those comments were made on the basis the condition said to have been imposed was correct, which it wasn’t.

After the article had appeared Mrs Gernhoefer wrote a letter to the editor which was published the following week. In it she responded that to suggest that students had to declare their sexual preference by writing a letter was absurd and defied belief. It would also be a clear breach of Human Rights. She also wrote separately to the editor asking him to print an apology, or retraction, but did not receive a reply.

In response to the complaint the New Zealand Herald editor did not accept that the article was inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced. The story said simply that pupils ‘had been told’ they could not bring girls as partners to the ball unless they declared themselves lesbians. It did not say that the Principal had said so, or that it was school’s policy. The editor claimed that the issue was the barring of school children from inviting same-sex partners to the school ball.

The crux of the Principal’s complaint was the reported requirement that girls needed a letter stating that they were lesbians before they could ask a same sex partner to the ball. The school rules did not allow girls from other schools to attend as partners. This was not disputed and, as the principal pointed out, other schools on the North Shore have similar rules. She also pointed out that the editor, in his responses to her complaint, had shifted his stance to defending the story on the grounds that it was dealing simply with the issue of students not being allowed to bring girls from outside the school as ball partners, whilst ignoring the sensational impact of a supposed condition, required in writing, of a declaration of sexual orientation.

In a follow up article a week later the NZ Herald quoted Education Minister Trevor Mallard’s opposition to schools barring same sex partners from senior balls. The NZ Herald stated again that ‘Westlake Girls High acknowledged that it did not allow 6th and 7th formers to bring other girls as their partners’ despite the Principal making it quite clear to the reporter that girls could, and did, bring girl partners from their own school, or attend with a group of girls from the school.

The Press Council upheld the complaint on the grounds that the article published a statement in such a manner that a reader could be lead to reasonably believe that the school itself had told the girls they had to declare themselves lesbians. The NZ Herald’s response was that the story said simply that pupils ‘had been told’…. However, in a school environment the phrase, ‘girls had been told’ would naturally lead one to assume that the pupils had been told by someone in authority. The article was phrased in such a way as to give unwarranted weight to the anonymous unsubstantiated comments from unidentified girls at the school.

The complaint is upheld.