Sticks and stones

Yesterday, after school, I drove Eleanor out to Lower Hutt for the dress rehearsal of her end of year ballet show which will be running three times over the weekend.  The dress rehearsal and the shows are at the Little Theatre, which is next to the Hutt Library.  I spent the two hours of the dress rehearsal in the library which was a rare child-free treat.  I read bits of a book about Genesis (the book not the band), about trends, and about Winston Churchill’s dining experiences.  The last one was the perfect gift for my friend Matt for Christmas I decided, as it lovingly analysed Champagne, cigars, whiskey and fine dining with politics and bon mots.  Curiously one thing that Churchill despised in journalists was the taking of photos while his guests were dining.  He thought of it as an invasion.  I can see what he means I suppose.  Apparently he was an extremely attentive and discreet host, and fiercely protected his guests from any unwanted media attention.

Aside from a decent collection of books the Lower Hutt Library has some huge murals.  The old entrance foyer is obviously a war memorial too, and has two giant murals showing the armed forces in one and the grateful populace in the other.  Underneath the first it says “Their Sacrifice” and under the other it says “Preserved freedom”.  It’s not really a masterpiece, but it’s hard not to notice a man proudly holding an open newspaper in the “Preserved Freedom” panel.  For some reason this year I have come to realise how important it is to have a tough, fair-minded press in a country that claims to be democratic.  I think it is important because it makes people more likely to participate in their democracy; to support and defend what they want, and to protest and attack what they don’t.

Earlier in the year I sent a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.  It was about Stewart Wilson, who the media continually referred to as either The Beast of Blenheim or just the Beast.  My complaint went like this:

I believe that continually referring to Stewart Wilson as the Beast of Blenheim is inaccurate, denigrates, and is irresponsible.  The programme I have used as a specific example is only one case out of many.

Standard 5c states that “News must be impartial”.  Leading news stories by introducing a criminal by their inflammatory nickname is not impartial reporting.

Standard 7 states that “Broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of,any section of the community”.  Clearly the nickname “Beast of Blenheim” denigrates.  In the article I have cited above one of the people at the public meeting talks about Stewart Wilson being put in a gas chamber.  TV3 is not responsible for the opinions of this man, but in allowing him to be denigrated, and turned into an animal by consistently referring to him as a beast, I believe that this news service is allowing these kind of comments to be more acceptable in society, and could even encourage this man’s life to be endangered.

Standard 8 asks broadcasters to make sure shows “are not presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress.”  Obviously the release of this man does cause quite warranted alarm and distress, but the labelling of this man as a “beast” heightens this alarm in a way that lessens the possibility of reasonable debate about a serious issue.

I received this response.

Dear John-Paul,
Thank you for your email outlining your concerns about a news story that screened on 3 News which you saw on a website.  The Free-to-air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice does not cover website content and therefore the MediaWorks Standards Committee declines to investigate your complaint formally.  However, the Committee makes the following comment on the overall nature of your complaint:
In almost every news story regarding Stewart Murray Wilson, the ‘Beast of Blenheim’ moniker is used only once verbally and sometimes graphically at the top of the bulletin.  Throughout the rest of the broadcast he is referred to by his full name or as ‘Wilson’.  The broadcast that caused you concern was no exception.  The Committee understands the sentiment behind your complaint, however we believe that the news story remained objective and contextualised the moniker by ensuring it featured subordinately and as a reference to a name he is also known as.   We are of the opinion that the limited use of the moniker is unlikely to offend a majority of the programme’s audience.

Yours sincerely,

Jodie Reid,

For the MediaWorks Standards Committee

Which I happen to think is an appalling poor response.  Firstly, we would need to update any law that does not include the internet.  I did not see the news clip on “a” website I saw it on the official TV3 news website.  Not to mention that I was unaware that the media investigated its own complaints.

Secondly, if “the top of the story” is a picture with a caption that says “Beast”, and the first line of a report is “The Beast of Blenheim”, then I think that this is what people remember, not all the less dramatic “context” later.  I didn’t even know what the man’s name was until I went looking for it on the internet.

Finally, “it doesn’t offend most people” is a very weak kind of standard to have.

England at the moment is in the middle of a war of words about press regulation after the Leveson report was issued.  Leveson recommends an independent regulatory body.  David Cameron wants the press to regulate itself which is the classic response of the right to regulation, and appears to be what we have in New Zealand.

The right is not a friend of the press.  John Key is a perfect illustration.  He routinely appears on Breakfast TV to “chat”, he likes to talk about who is “hot”, and tell people their T-shirts are “gay” on Talkback radio, but he doesn’t like to go on serious news programmes on either the radio or TV.  His MPs hardly ever bother themselves with serious news programmes either.  Judith Collins released a Youtube clip instead of being interviewed.  The beauty of this is you can just  say what you want and nobody can ask you any questions.

Sometimes people argue that “having media standards” is just censorship.  It is.  It censures irresponsibility.


This morning I opened the Stuff website and my blood ran cold.  The only other time I recall this happening is when I turned on the TV and saw a tidal wave surging relentlessly across Japan.  Today I felt sick when I saw this:


These two radio hosts need to resign their positions.  Of course they didn’t mean for this to happen, but it has happened, and now they must take their share of responsibility.  The hospital will be looking pretty hard at itself too I imagine.  The media and the press is a global form now, and a largely unregulated (sorry, self “regulated”) one in an international and national sense.  Freedom of the press has been used for a long time in recent decades to excuse gross and illegal breaches of privacy.  Prank calling that invades privacy is not freedom of the press.  Calling people dehumanising nick names is not freedom of the press.  Letting politicians get away with not being called to account and publishing their press releases unchanged is not freedom of the press.

I feel terribly, terribly sad for Jacintha Saldanha’s family.

4 thoughts on “Sticks and stones”

  1. The issue of the jurisdiction of the BSA is an interesting one. It seems like it should be simple – online content of a broadcaster should also be covered by the BSA. But what if One News has a web clip of an extended interview that has never screened on television? Or what if a web clip at 3 News has a different quote from one person than the version that screened on the telly? And what about the Herald and Stuff – they both have self-produced videos of news stores on their websites – should those also be under the jurisdiction of the BSA? It’s tricky.

    As for the devastating news of the nurse, earlier today a friend (who has previously worked in commercial radio) tweeted a good observation. A prank works when it’s at the expense of someone in a powerful position. If the joke had been played on, say, Prince Charles, then it would have worked. Instead it was at the expense of two ordinary, hard-working nurses. Bastards.

  2. They were being cute with my response because I actually saw it on TV, but double-checked it on the internet. The broadcast was the same in both places.

    I can’t see why people can’t complain over internet content put up on News websites. That doesn’t seem particularly tricky to me. It is a pretty antiquated law that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that most people under thirty get most of their news off the web.

  3. I always cringe when everyday people are pranked like this and lose their dignity. I felt the same when I first heard that the call had taken place. Perhaps it’s dignity at the expense of publicity and money.

    The England/Leveson example is frightening and fascinating at the same time. Most of the awful actions of the press (hacking a missing girl’s phone for example) were illegal but the laws were not enforced because the police were in the pocket of the press. The cynic in me always suspected Cameron would not act on any Leveson recommendations because if all evidence came out (and I estimate all the evidence was destroyed while the corrupted police were conducting their first investigation) the whole establishment would fall. One of the worst of the phone hackers later became Cameron’s own media advisor. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to work out that England doesn’t hold much of a democracy. There’s one real free and critical press publication left and it’s edited by this guy:–and-much-that-wasnt-8372315.html

    As for New Zealand our media just seems to be split between two media corporations and a state broadcaster that acts like a corporation. Thank-you for writing that letter, I sheepish stuck to swearing at the radio whenever the moniker was used..

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