Cartoons at the centre of a Human Rights Review Tribunal were lampooning "bludgers", not any one ethnicity, a tribunal has heard.
Labour MP Louisa Wall has taken Fairfax Media and its papers, The Press and Marlborough Express, to the tribunal over cartoons by Al Nisbet. The cartoons, printed in May 2013, were about the Government's breakfast-in-schools programme.
Fairfax group executive editor Sinead Boucher told the tribunal today that cartoons were the opinion of the cartoonist. They were not of the newspaper or the editor, and in that respect cartoonists were similar to columnists.
"In the case of these cartoons, I think they were true to the traditions of good cartooning, which is to hone in on a particular point that may be controversial or thought-provoking, and cause the reader to stop and think," Boucher said.
She saw the cartoons as trying to depict a mixed group of people who could be "bludgers" - the type of people who would take advantage of a free-breakfast scheme for personal gain - rather than of any one particular ethnic group.
The cartoons complained about depicted a group of adults, dressed as children, eating breakfast and saying, "Psst . . . If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies."
The other depicted a family sitting round a table littered with Lotto tickets, alcohol and cigarettes and saying "Free school food is great! Eases our poverty and puts something in your kids' bellies."
Wall earlier told the tribunal the central characters in the first cartoon were Maori or Pacific Islanders. The family group in the second was "very clearly a Maori family".
The cartoons were "insulting and ignorant put-downs of Maori and Pacific people", she said.
Marlborough Express editor Steve Mason told the tribunal he had checked the first cartoon before it went to print. He saw that it contained two central figures who were Maori or Pacific Islanders and several others who were not.
Though he judged the cartoon as "fairly raw, blunt, cynical, and stereotyped" he approved its printing as it was not racist or abusive.
Mason said he printed a front-page story the next day on the controversy the cartoon provoked. The story included Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy's comments that the cartoon was "appalling" and "offensive", but that it did not qualify as racism.
During the hearing, tribunal chairman Rodger Haines, QC, read quotes from the cartoonist.
Nisbet said he originally drew the people as all white, but he later saw that the breakfast-in-schools was going to be rolled out in Northland so he "darkened" the central characters to "balance the ledger".
Nisbet was quoted as saying he "poked the borax equally".
Haines summarised Nisbet's view as "equal opportunity to be the subject of caricature" - to not depict Maori or Pacific Island people would be to regard them as "weak" when they were anything but weak, he said.
Wall has asserted the cartoons were "unlawful discrimination" as they violated Section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Fairfax lawyer Robert Stewart said that taking offence, feeling hurt, upset or angry were not sufficient to satisfy the onus that section 61 had been breached.
The Human Rights Act was to ensure that groups of people were not improperly treated differently to other groups, Stewart said.
"It is a portrayal said by the plaintiff to involve a negative racial stereotype, but it is not a different treatment based on colour, race or ethnicity."
Fairfax acknowledged there were limitations on free speech, but those limitations were narrow, Stewart said.
If the complainant's submissions were accepted "the right to freedom of expression would be unreasonably and unjustifiably restricted to a right to freedom of expression, provided you don't offend, shock or disturb an ethnic or racial group".
Newspaper historian Ian Grant, the founder of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, said cartoonists offered a "street-level view of the world".
Nisbet's cartoons usually depicted people as ugly and fat, he said.
Grant said he personally found the cartoons in question offensive, but he would "fight to his dying breath" for papers' right to print them.
Censoring such cartoons would strike to the heart of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, he said.
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