NZ Press Council, 11 June 2007:
"The Press Council has upheld complaints by Tze Ming Mok and others, the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Grant Hannis against North & South for its report on Asian immigration and crime. The Council has found the magazine breached its principles on accuracy and discrimination."
It was a unanimous ruling and - despite the current unlawfulness of such behaviour - "an unmitigated spanking", as one observer put it.
I have archived all the documents relating to the three complaints against 'Asian Angst' and North & South here, including the full ruling, Deborah Coddington's official responses to the complainants, a timeline, some background explanation, the article's text, and all the statistics one could possibly desire. Choice excerpts from the conclusion are below (additional emphasis mine).
Magazines are entitled to take a strong position on issues they address (principle 7). But that does not legitimise gratuitous emphasis on dehumanising racial stereotypes and fear-mongering and, of course, the need for accuracy always remains. The key issue is the absence of correlation between the Asian population and the crime rate. Ms Coddington argues she has recorded the rise in the Asian population and it would have insulted the readers to link that with the crime figures. The Council does not accept this argument. The linkage is vital and should have been made explicit. It is abundantly clear and is not effectively challenged by Ms Coddington, despite quibbles about terminology and direct comparisons of her figures with those of her critics, that the rate of offending is dropping pro rata. To then talk of a gathering crime tide is therefore wrong.
The language used is emotionally loaded. There is an explicit statement in the third paragraph of the article “we’ll make it loud and clear from the start, the vast majority of Asians making New Zealand their new home are hard-working, focused on getting their children well educated and ensuring they’re not dependent on the state (unlike so many New Zealand citizens.)”. But the subsequent use of phrases like “The Asian menace has been steadily creeping up on us”, “Asian crime continues to greet us with monotonous regularity” and “as each week passes with news of yet another arrest involving a Chinese sounding name” combine to portray a group that has a disproportionate tendency to crime.
[...] That there are serious crimes committed by individual Asians is not at issue but the failure to set this in context, both of other sectors of New Zealand society and of the Asian communities as a whole, cannot but stigmatise a whole group.
There are counter-references in the report. [...] But th[ese are] followed by a reference to ignorance of “a major problem” and the quotations do not therefore change the overall tenor of the material which in the Council’s view does breach the Principle referring to discrimination.
An example of the new epithets now officially available for use: 'Officially discredited award-winning journalist Deborah Coddington, said of her officially discredited and racist article 'Asian Angst', after reading the Press Council ruling "I can only conclude that I was correct all along."
We have our victory; what are the lessons? Here are a few I can think of, shared in the spirit of learning, jurisprudential interest, and constructiveness, rather than of gloating (okay, *as well as* gloating) - and these were interesting findings for everyone in the media game, including me.
Lesson 1: For journalists
It's not a dogwhistle when every damn person on the street can hear it.
Officially ruling on whether an article is discriminatory is a tricky and often very subjective business. That's why this article should probably should be used in journalism training as an example of how not to get away with it.
Importantly, this ruling draws a line in the sand about 'balance'. If your story has an overriding mission to portray an ethnic group as negatively as the officially discredited, officially racist article did, even if you try to round out the edges with one or two counterquotes from bemused officials the intent will still be clear. You can't have it both ways.
They tried hard though. In her correspondence, Coddington gave us valuable insights into the magazine's convoluted attempt to have their cake and feed racism with it too, hitting the heights of semantic contortion with hilarious results. With regard to the "gathering crime tide" that didn't exist, at page 3 of her response to our complaint, she states: "The metaphor was carefully chosen." And this is the killer:
A "gathering crime tide" is not a synonym for a "crime wave', as Mabbett and Mok seem to think... A tide goes in and out..." (my emphasis)
Let's pause there, to appreciate the glories of that distinction. You couldn't make this shit up (even though this shit is about making shit up). You can see Coddington and Robyn Langwell examining the cake. How? How can we make sure that the racists eat the cake? But that no-one can prove that we fed it to them? The Press Council was good enough to call this rationalisation "disingenuous".
Lesson 2: For publishers and editors
Letters ain't enough unless they spell 'S-O-R-R-Y'
When your journalist has done their utmost to misinform under your editorial watch, not even printing dozens of critical letters over three months will save you if you don't take editorial responsibility for your actions.
The racist icing that Langwell laid on the racist cake (or for our side, the insult atop the injury), was that despite printing negative feedback about the article in following issues, the response from the magazine itself only perpetuated the misinformation over statistics. An admission or a correction printed in the magazine may have helped them feebly fend off a complaint. But they tanked, publishing Coddington's obfuscatory right of reply in the January issue, and printing an editorial defense, not an apology. No-one took responsibility for the fudged 'crime tide'. The Press Council didn't buy it.
Lesson 3: For the magazine industry
Desperate measures imply desperate times
Worried by sinking magazine sales and circulation due to market saturation and the explosion of web media? Think that tapping into the so-called "anguish" of the excessively invoked 'middle-New Zealand' by scaremongering about some minority group is the answer? Think again. Not only is it insulting to those who you consider the mainstay of your "Thinking New Zealand" readership, it also makes you look desperate.
I heard Coddington say plaintively on NatRad during a grilling over the article, "it wasn't even my idea!" (NB: I, uh, 'stand by' my quoting of her comments on the radio, although if you are reading any of her responses to the complainants, her use of quotation marks around what she thinks people have said about her on the radio should definitely be taken figuratively rather than literally) I have some sympathy for Coddington's 'Robyn made me do it' defense. The idea and the direction of the article very much seemed to be an editorially driven attempt at strategic positioning - one that backfired. Even if there was a spike in sales for that issue (perhaps to fuel mass burnings), was it worth it to position one's magazine so clearly on the side of the grumpy racist codger market, which is only going to die off in the future? Even invoking the "anguish" of middle-New Zealand about house-prices, keeping cheerful, and maintaining one's brain function on successive Listener covers comes off as insightfully fashion-forward by comparison.
Also, the more you try to tap into generalised bigoted "anguish", the more likely your journalists are to screw up on the facts as they are warped to suit the editorial purpose. And the watchdogs are watching - even 'crazed bloggers' are able to make Press Council complaints. Is getting raked over the coals by the rest of the industry ever good for a magazine?
Lesson 4: For anyone going before the Press Council
The Press Council is not a talkback radio audience
You can mostly get away with intellectual bankruptcy in an op-ed column; hey it may even be compulsory. But if you think you can take the same tactics to a credible, adjudicatory industry body and think you're going to win... well, prepare for a reality check.
Coddington defended the article to the Press Council using methods familiar to anyone who's read her op-eds or witnessed her defend herself anywhere in the media:
a) make ad hominem attacks
b) accuse your critics of having made ad hominem attacks
c) accuse your critics of having secret agendas
d) dismiss your critics because they have criticised you before
e) dismiss any substantive points with either mischaracterisation of the argument, obfuscation of the facts, misquotes, or bait-and-switch non sequiturs.
It might fly in the Herald on Sunday (her embargo-breaking pre-emptive strike yesterday for example, ran the full gamut), but the Press Council weren't having any of it.
Ultimately, Coddington didn't - and couldn't - fight us on the facts. During the process, she dismissed the group complaint and Asia:NZ's criticism of her statistics, saying (just as she had in the letters page of both the Listener and North and South) that we weren't comparing "like with like." This was despite our specific use of the same statistics to do exactly that. Grant Hannis' later complaint kept on at her over the statistics - she again tried to say he wasn't comparing "like with like" (uh, he was using exactly the same table-builder as she was on the StatsNZ site), but because he didn't have any distracting qualities that she could attack (being Asian, being part of a conspiracy, etc) she eventually ran out of insults and bait-and-switch options. And so, the great victory of the Hannis complaint was that it forced her to say one thing that was actually on topic in defense of her use of statistics - that referring directly to the actual, real Asian crime rate by including the population increase in her calculation would "insult the intelligence of my readers..."
It was rather more likely that the Press Council were the ones who were feeling insulted by her off-point submissions - they rejected her criticism of Asia:NZ's right to complain, and totally ignored her very odd and conspiratorial comments about the group complaint. But her submissions made fascinating reading, and by fascinating, I mean sort of mad. See? Entertainment has its place. I have it on good authority that she was royally bummed when she heard the Press Council result, because of all the effort she had put into her submissions - I hope it will give her some satisfaction to know that some value is being derived from her work.
For the benefit of all you co-conspirators reading Public Address, at page 6 of her response she said of the group complaint:
The principal author, Russell Brown* has been personally criticising my[sic] since 1996, when I published a book listing paedophiles and sex offenders (referring to me on radio as the most bizarre woman in Auckland, or something).** I note he now calls me "Coddingtonswallop" on his website.*** I therefore do not give his criticism any credibility.
It is also important to note that Russell Brown's website "Hard News",**** publishes regular contributions from Keith Ng and Tze Ming Mok. It is therefore very easy to come to the conclusion that the personal vilification meted out to me by all those writers on this website is the same spirit behind the official complaint to the Press Council.*****
Clearly there is no conspiracy here, but I believe the authors of these letters and complaints to the Press Council have multiplied their efforts in an attempt to bulk up what, in essence, is just one complaint."*****
*did not author the complaint, and not a party to the complaint
**probably means he never said this
***he never called her this
****not the name of the website
*****Fails to notice that Keith and I also are both Chinese, or even, "Asian", which may have been another motivating "spirit behind the official complaint to the Press Council."
***** ie there is a conspiracy. Or maybe she just managed to annoy a *lot* of people
Coddington referred to Russell as the "principal author" of the original complaint letter to North & South, and noted a suspicious similarity between that letter (which the group considered our warning shot) and the formal complaint to the Press Council (duh). Ultimately, both versions were mostly my work, on top of a reworking of Keith's initial analysis, and with helpful input, support, admin/logistics, and quality screening from several dozen other concerned members of mostly Asian communities. Russell signed on to the 'warning shot' letter, along with a couple of other Pakeha and Maori supporters, and I think he would be horrified to be blamed for drawing up tables that look as ugly as this (as would Keith). Russell actually excused himself from the Press Council complaint when it came time to haul out the big guns, as he thought it might be weird for journalists to be taking each other to the Press Council.
After we sent our comments to the Press Council to clarify authorship, Coddington's response was:
"My only comment is on Ms Mok’s allegation that I made “peculiar assumptions as to authorship, imputing that the complaints were instigated by the journalist Russell Brown (not a party to the complaint).” I never imputed Brown “instigated” the complaint, as is clear in my original submission. I merely addressed the fact that Russell Brown, I believe, is motivated to complain about me by less than professional reasons."
So, she "never imputed Brown "instigated" the complaint"; just that he personally authored it... And there was no conspiracy, except for the conspiracy.
The complainants couldn't have hoped for an opponent whose submissions were more destructive to her own credibility than Coddington. In fact, the Council's disdain for her responses seemed so palpable, that I almost get the sense that all our pages and pages of detailed textual and statistical analyses were barely necessary.
Lesson 5: For everyone
Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuttin' ta fuck wit'
I've dished all this inside procedural dirt above, not only out of the pleasures of gloating, but because I actually have a point: it seems that Deborah Coddington simply could not acknowledge that Asian people would or could ever effectively take her on (let alone win), on their own steam, with support from genuine allies, as a united and diverse group, and motivated by their real interests as members of ethnic communities who could be harmed by her article.
Perhaps she was so keenly aware of her non-Asian critics that she saw invisible vindictive hands everywhere? Perhaps she thought that our English wouldn't be good enough to write the complaint? Or maybe when referring to the original group letter of indignation to North & South as 'Russell Brown et al" she was going alphabetical out of convenience, but was having difficulty spelling 'Sekhar Bandyopadhyay et al'?
While she was incredibly rude in her response to Grant Hannis' complaint, Coddington's attitude to the Asian complainants were oddly patronising. She suggested repeatedly that Charles (Fei Loong) Mabbett of the Asia:NZ Foundation didn't have the moral authority to make a complaint. She also seemed to think that because the Embedded Asian Underground showed some ability to coordinate joint actions and work the media, that our complaints were invalid. Presumably, the reason a whole bunch of Asians were out for blood, had coherent arguments, and were getting media coverage, was not because she had written a crappy article that pissed us off and insulted everyone's intelligence, but because some mean, powerful media people had it in for her.
To be fair (very briefly), I have no doubt that there are a lot of journalists who will take pleasure in this ruling, and that cannot be a pleasant experience for Coddington, as this is her profession and her peer group. The fact that many journalists don't seem to like her much, certainly played a part in how *easy* it was to generate a goodly amount of press reaction to the article. But clearly, the reason some journalists are happy to knife her, is because of articles like this. Not for no reason. The fact that Charles Mabbett, Keith and I, all had our own non-conspiratorial connections in the mainstream press that we were perfectly entitled to make use of, wasn't because we were part of a pre-existing anti-Coddington coalition, but because we wrote our way into the business, on our own merits, as part of the slow but inevitable increase in Chinese people in the media.
The Embedded Asian Underground has done itself proud, so allow me a further moment of smugness to say, props to us. Still, we didn't win this in a vacuum. It's damn good to see how the landscape has changed since 1993 and the 'Inv-Asian' article. When 'Asian Angst' was published last year, there was a widespread sense of disbelief that something like this was actually happening again - it seemed so anachronistic, a kind of journalism from another era, repudiated long ago. The strength and success of the response has showed that we were right to think that our political culture had already moved on from the these overt, aggressive displays of media xenophobia - and many, many thanks are due to everyone who has helped prove us right. That probably includes you.
Finally: for Deborah Coddington:
Zen is not to be feared
In a strange echo of Keith finding out that former Labour Party candidate Stephen Ching literally did not know the meaning of the word 'tokenism', we also discovered during the complaints process that Coddington cannot spell 'xenophobia'.