Last year, Deborah Coddington was crucified for an article she wrote in North & South magazine entitled Asian Angst: Is it time to send some back?, in which she examined Asian (well, Chinese really) immigration and involvement in crime.
The article caused an outcry and resulted in several complaints to the Press Council, which were upheld. One of the complaints concerned inflammatory language (such as “a flick through the crime files show the Asian menace has been steadily creeping up on us”), but the main complaint turned on Coddington’s use of statistics.
Several complainants argued that in calculating the Asian crime rate, Coddington had ignored or overlooked the fact that the Asian population had increased overall. They said, and the council agreed, that her flawed figures undermined the whole thrust of the article and rendered it unbalanced.
In her defence, Coddington said the purpose of the article was “to expose readers to the downside of Asian immigration, which I clearly stated has been overwhelmingly good for New Zealand”. She also pointed out that her article drew on information from experts such as the head of the Auckland drug squad. The reason she hadn’t measured the increase in Asian crime against the increase in the Asian population overall was that she didn’t want to insult her readers’ intelligence.
The Press Council accepted North & South’s right to investigate immigration policy and crime rates relating to a specific ethnic community – I don’t see how it could have done otherwise – but held that “the key issue was the absence of correlation between the Asian population and the crime rate”. It did not accept Coddington’s argument that she had mentioned the increase in the Asian population and that it would have insulted readers’ intelligence to link that with the crime figures. “The linkage was vital and should have been made explicit,” the council said. To talk of a gathering crime wave was wrong.
The council noted that there was an explicit statement in the third paragraph of Coddington’s article that the vast majority of Asians in New Zealand were hard-working and focused on getting their children educated and avoiding dependency on the state. But it held that this was negated by the subsequent use of phrases such as “The Asian menace has steadily been creeping up on us”. The failure to place Asian crime in context “could not but stigmatise a whole group”.
I was uncomfortable with the council’s finding in this case, though it appears to have been unanimous. I thought the council failed to strike a proper balance between freedom of expression, as set out in the Bill of Rights Act, and the prohibition on discrimination in the Human Rights Act, both of which it cited in its decision.
The Human Rights Act prohibition on discrimination is reflected in the council’s own principle that publications should not place “gratuitous emphasis” on minority groups, race, colour etc. But the Bill of Rights Act provides, crucially, that whenever a statute can be given a meaning consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, “that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning”.
I’m no lawyer, but that suggests to me that where the right to freedom of expression comes into conflict with anti-discrimination provisions, or the right to feel offended, the law holds that freedom of expression should take precedence.
Besides, if Coddington's piece stigmatised all Chinese in New Zealand, does that mean the media should stop reporting the criminal activities of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob for fear it will stigmatise all Maori?
Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the “Asian angst” controversy, however, was the way in which the left – including many journalists – savaged Coddington and pinned that obnoxious and simplistic epithet “racist” on her. I suspect this had a lot to do with the fact that she was a former ACT MP.
Coddington’s article examined a legitimate issue. No one reading newspapers over the past 10 years could fail to be aware of increased Chinese crime (let’s be specific here, and discard that vague euphemism “Asian”). Coddington’s critics seized on one central weakness in her story and argued that this negated the whole piece. I don’t agree that it did. We are still left with the fact that we have a Chinese crime problem – mostly manifested in drug dealing and kidnapping – that we didn’t have 20 years ago. The danger is that the uproar over Coddington’s story may have created the impression that the subject is now a no-go area, and any journalist foolhardy enough to venture there can expect to be pilloried as she was.
Why do I mention all this now? Because both The Dominion Post and The New Zealand Herald report today that five-year-old Cina Ma, aka Xin Xin, may have been kidnapped by a fellow Chinese. The Dom Post quoted a Chinese friend of Cina Ma’s family as saying it’s a common practice in China for children to be kidnapped and used as leverage when business deals go wrong. Cina’s grandparents and aunt were reported as believing that could explain her abduction. The Herald, meanwhile, said the fact that Cina Ma shouted at her masked kidnapper in Chinese suggested that she thought he would understand the language (Cina Ma evidently also speaks good English).
The Dom Post also ran a helpful side panel listing other high-profile crimes in recent years involving Chinese. Most are kidnappings, a crime virtually unheard of in New Zealand until relatively recently. The paper reports that in 2002, police recorded 22 cases of kidnapping or extortion involving “Asians”. But the Dom Post’s list is far from exhaustive; reports of Chinese involvement in high-level drug-smuggling and other crime are commonplace.
Does this reflect on the Chinese community generally? Of course not, any more than stories about Black Power and the Mongrel Mob reflect on all Maori. Most Chinese (as Coddington’s article acknowledged) are hard-working, honest citizens who make a welcome addition to New Zealand’s demographic mix. But no amount of politically correct sensitivity can disguise the fact that there is a hard-core criminal element in the Chinese community, which is what Coddington’s article tried to explain.
As Chris Trotter pointed out in his Dom Post column last week, Chinese community activist Peter Low has confirmed the existence of triad gangs in Auckland. Trotter suggested, rightly, that Coddington would be justified in standing up and demanding an apology from her tormentors.
Trotter went on to write that triads dominate the traffic in Class A drugs and are responsible for most human trafficking, money-laundering, loan-sharking, counterfeiting and prostitution. Who, I wonder, is going to take him to the Press Council? Or the Dom Post, for having the audacity to list Chinese involvement in kidnappings and extortion?
[Disclaimer: To forestall the inevitable accusation of mates defending mates, I am not a personal friend of Deborah Coddington. I have met her two or three times at functions and spoken to her on the phone maybe four or five times over a period of many years. But I believe she was unfairly targeted over her Asian angst story, and I suspect some of her critics were out to destroy her credibility and end her career as a journalist.]