Editor defends cartoon decision

Last updated 17:43 23/07/2014
Louisa Wall
'CLEARLY A MAORI FAMILY': Labour MP Louisa Wall has taken Fairfax Media and its papers, The Press and Marlborough Express, to the tribunal over cartoons by Al Nisbet.
Joanna Norris
Editor of The Press, Joanna Norris.

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A controversial cartoon published in The Press was "cynical and simplistic", but provoked discussion and drew attention to an important issue, the editor of The Press says.

Labour MP Louisa Wall has taken Fairfax Media and its papers, The Press and Marlborough Express, to the Human Rights Review Tribunal over cartoons printed in May last year. Created by Al Nisbet, the cartoons refer to the Government's breakfast-in-schools programme.

Joanna Norris, editor of The Press, testified to the tribunal today that the cartoon she approved for print contained two Maori or Pacific Island characters and several Pakeha characters.

As such she considered it as representative of "New Zealanders" and not any one ethnic group.

She had considered that the Maori characters did not get treated differently to the other characters and it did not bring them into contempt, she said.

The cartoon was "cynical and simplistic but likely to provoke debate", Norris said.

The cartoon printed by The Press depicted a group sitting round a table littered with Lotto tickets, alcohol and cigarettes. The adult characters' speech bubble said: "Free school food is great! Eases our poverty and puts something in you kids' bellies."

Asked if she would publish the cartoon, knowing what she now knew, Norris said: "I can't say if I would publish it again because it would depend on the context, but I would like the freedom to do so."

From her time working in the Middle East she had seen the "insidious" effect on freedom of the press when the media feared prosecution, Norris said.

Wall has complained to the tribunal that the cartoons breached section 61 of the Human Rights Act.

The section says it is unlawful to publish matter that is "threatening, abusive, or insulting ... words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons ... on the grounds of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons".

Via video link from Canada, Bill of Rights Act expert Professor Grant Huscroft told the tribunal that section 61 was interpreted narrowly and was breached only at the serious end of the spectrum.

If the section was interpreted broadly it would "result in the law being infringed routinely, and the question would be whether such an extensive limitation on freedom of expression could be justified under section 5 [of the Bill of Rights Act]".

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Wall's legal team repeatedly asked about the right to be free from discrimination enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act and whether that conflicted with the right to freedom of expression.

Huscroft explained that the Bill of Rights Act did not bestow rights between individuals - it made the Government ensure that state actions were not taken that infringed people's rights. Individuals' rights were guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, he said.

Wall was arguing for "a lower threshold in finding breaches of section 61 than the current threshold employed by the [Human Rights] Commission", Huscroft said.

"In my view, a lowering of the threshold would cause the application of the law to tilt toward subjective offence rather than the objective harm of causing hostility or contempt."

This would result in more litigation and expense, Huscroft said.

"Beyond this, there is the risk that a broader approach to section 61 will harm political discourse and may result in a chilling effect on freedom of expression."

The hearing continues.

- The Press

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