Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The crucifixion of Deborah Coddington

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.]


David Farrar said...

Karl - there was a very good story which could have been written about Asian crime, its prevalence and how it is different from other crime (as in the areas it tends to be focused on).

But Deborah's article was not that story. It was a pretty appalling article full of factual errors. One I can recall off hand is saying 80% of Asian women abort their pregnancy. It turned out that is the figure for Asian teenagers which is not surprisingly much higher than adult Asians.

Yes there can be a political correctness on these issues, where some will decry any article on a sensitive issue. But the reason Deborah's article got slammed is because it was, in my opinion, sloppy.

I should say though that I don't believe this in any way undermine's Deborah's generally excellent journalistic credentials. Everyone stuffs up occasionally and this was just one of tjem.

Steve Withers said...

Karl: Coddington erred in not confining her article to facts related to crimes commited by Chinese criminals. I recall the article and the overall impression was to blur the line between all Asians and the tiny minority who commit crimes. That sort of thing is par for the course from Coddington in my experience and she has been caught out again by a serious lack of precision in language used to make her case.

I could wite an article that said many thousands of good, honest, hard-working Chinese people have immigrated to New Zealand in recent years and it is clear that some bad apples have slipped through. Then talk about the bad apples and what to do about them. If you use stats, make damned sure they are accurate and presented in context.

No one would complain about it and the debate would be about the substance of the issue rather than the shoddy article that raised everyone's ire.

Anonymous said...

Good points.
Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Asian crime is on the increase and getting bolder.
so what do we do about it?
and when.

that's the conversation.
Good job.

Jim Tucker said...

IT WAS inevitable someone would connect the latest Asian kidnapping in Auckland with the North & South magazine "Asian Angst" case, in which the Press Council made its first-ever finding of discrimination.

You can't see too much wrong with the Coddington piece and you launch into your usual attack on the PC brigades, with a warning that this topic - Asian crime in NZ - is now chilly territory for future media inquiry.

I won't get into a debate about whether the PC was right - although for such a conservative body to make such a significant finding seems to speak for itself. I think there are some broader issues that need to be pursued.

Such as: is it any surprise that a minority group should react as strongly as the Asian community (and its supporters) did over an article that appeared to them to be discriminatory and unfair?

In her book The Authentic Voice, Columbia Journalism School's Arlene Morgan analyses a similar case in the US, and was struck by the sensitivity of the Chines expat community there whenever an Asian person ended up in the media for wrong-doing.

Minority groups with significant migrant makeup are keen to fit in and be accepted, and when the spotlight goes - as it inevitably does - on negative impacts of their presence, they feel it's unfair.

The NZ mainstream media is on brittle ground here: its coverage of things Asian has been patchy, superficial and lacking context, so there is no balancing "positive story" casebook to give Asians reassurance that the majority is considered a positive influence on the country.

Let's draw a parallel. The media gives hefty coverage to the business world; many stories are positive and enthusiastic about business developments and good news contributions to exports, etc. The media doesn't shy away from reporting the down side, as well, and there has been extensive coverage of negative stories like the housing market decline and the crash of finance companies (although these don't make the front page lead nearly as often as they should).

Overall, then, there is a balance - the good with the bad.

That doesn't happen with coverage of ethnic groups, although the discourse (there's that word again, Karl) on Maori current affairs is a lot better than it used to be (even heard a story about Tainui's financial successes on the radio today).

I haven't heard if anyone is complaining to the PC about coverage of the Clydesdale Report on the supposed failure of Pacific Island people to contribute to our economy. If someone does, it will be interesting to see if the result is the same. PI were certainly another ethnic community who felt pretty alien in this country when that appeared.

I'm all for an independent media, and I've had as many battles as you, Karl, in the constant war of attrition that threatens media freedom. But I don't think we serve the cause well by trying to vindicate something that created such hurt and animosity.

For pragmatic reasons alone the news media can ill-afford to offend such rapidly growing sectors of the market. Report the bad guys by all means, but do it in the context of proper coverage. Then nobody will feel compelled to complain.

As to your concerns about the chill effect, as you well know, the media is beset by ice ages on topics all the time. Whenever there is a big defamation loss, for example, everyone is very nervous about investigative journalism for a while.

But it passes. The only real signal the PC finding sent was that journalists need to get it right, and that applies to any topic, surely.

Karl du Fresne said...

It may be, as you suggest Jim, that ethnic minorities such as Chinese (and Muslims too, for that matter) are particularly sensitive to the effects of negative media coverage. But I assume these people have chosen to emigrate to New Zealand because it offers benefits that they value and that most likely weren't available in their home countries. These include all the liberal democratic values we take for granted - such as the right to vote, a good education, religious freedom, a clean environment, freedom of speech, social stability, a free and transparent economy, the rule of law, an independent and non-corrupt police force and judiciary ... and a free press. It's a complete package which immigrants have to accept in its entirety; they can't drop that last bit off because it doesn't suit them. They also have to accept that news, by definition, is often bad, and that not every "bad" story - say, about a Chinese kidnapping - is going to be balanced by a "good" one (perhaps one about a brilliant Chinese student, although I'd remind you that we see plenty of those too). I accept this may take some adjusting to, because many Chinese immigrants would not have experienced it before coming here. But as I say, it's part of a package deal.
Of course it goes go without saying that none of the above exempts journalists from the requirement that their reporting should be fair, accurate and balanced.

Deborah Coddington said...

Sigh. I wasn't going to read the comments - I only read blogs these days, not the comments - but another journalist colleague insisted and now I wish I didn't. I don't ever claim to have everything correct in the features I write, but David, the article wasn't "full of factual errors". Even if it was, does that make me racist? (I know you didn't say that, but that's what I was accused of by others). Also, I never mentioned abortions in the article in North & South, so I suspect most people who comment on the N&S article never read it, but comment on what they think it was about. And I find it worrisome that Jim Tucker believes "For pragmatic reasons alone the news media can ill-afford to offend such rapidly growing sectors of the market". Should we ignore the smell at the back of the cave because it represents a growing sector of the market? When I went to journalism school, some 37 years ago, that's not what we were taught. A good journalist, we were told, has no mates. "Truthseeker" makes sweeping allegations which are nonsense - if he/she had been a steady reader of North & South, he/she would know that only 12 months earlier the magazine had published an extremely positive feature about Asian immigration. My article acknowledged that the vast majority of immigrants were a positive influence on this country, then went on to point out some negative aspects about new crimes and criminals which New Zealanders could take notice of. I still believe if my name wasn't on the byline, it would never have created such a fuss. I also find it eternally amusing that the most positive feedback I had from that article was overwhelmingly from Asian immigrants - mostly mainland Chinese - who don't want the crimes committed by other Chinese to go ignored and therefore lump them all in a collective bad lot.

David Farrar said...

Deborah - while we obviously have different perspectives on the accuracy of the story, I am very happy to say that I don't think you in any way racist at all, that the topic was legitimate and that yes it is probable some of the criticisms was because of who you are, not what you wrote.

Being an obvious target is all the more reason to be as bullet proof as possible in one's work - for my 2c.