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Editorial: Publish and be damned?

Mon 24 Sep 2007 In: Community View at Wayback View at NDHA

The decision on whether to highlight the appallingly homophobic abuse posted in the name of a son of a leading New Zealand politician has not come lightly to When readers brought the toxic profile page content to our attention almost a month ago we were disturbed and felt that it was a classic example of the sort of anti-gay abuse which finds a home in all sorts of places on the internet and which helps feed homophobic attitudes amongst those who read it. It is not difficult to imagine a culture of cyberabuse leading to schoolyard bullying, denigration of gays, lesbians and transsexuals, and even physical attacks. But would it be fair to single out this one teenager? We debated it amongst the News staff time and time again, with the arguments generally falling into two simplified views. One view is that this kid is not the only one out there penning this poisonous stuff and that just because his father is a political leader of major significance makes it unfair to single him out. The inference of that being to leave it alone, find another way to present the issue. The other view is that children are largely a product of home environment and that as a high-calibre politician we expect Bill English to raise his family with positive values, especially when he pushes 'family values' as part of his political and personal ethos. A father's status should not necessarily give anyone carte blanche to spread venomous views without being taken to task. Being the family member of a politician or celebrity cannot be easy sometimes. Ask yourself if, for instance, an accountant's daughter from the North Shore who was not Paul Holmes's daughter or the member of a wealthy high profile family would have been front page news when facing drug-related charges. Be that as it may, we even considered drawing attention to this and a few other homophobia-themed public postings and just leave those who followed the links to make up their own mind. But that seemed a rather callow approach and in the long term would achieve no less a degree of controversy. We decided to take it slowly and carefully. We drew the comments on the profile to Bill English's attention, using all the email addresses available to us and cc'ing his parliamentary office. We asked if the website was genuine, after all there are more than a few hoaxes here in cyberland. There was no denial of culpability, in fact no response at all. A simple "This is not my son's work, thank you for drawing it to our attention" would have sufficed. We tried to engage the profile's 'owner' in subtle discussion, but he doesn't seem to talk to strangers. But a tiny bit of feedback we received from a source close to English gave us a clear indication that we were on the right track. We waited for the profile to maybe vanish or at least be edited. Nothing. We made it clear to Mr English's staff that we were seriously considering running a story exposing the content and revealing its apparent author and at no time were we corrected in our growing belief in its author's identity. Sadly, as we quietly probed the content's authorship, the content grew even more toxic. If it had quietly disappeared we would likely have let the matter drop. Certainly if we had been able to discuss it, off the record if necessary, there might have been a less public, more positive, way of handling this. There are a hell of a lot of kids in New Zealand whose lives are blighted by bullying, and sexuality-based bullying is some of the most wounding and destructive. Dammit, there are a lot of adults whose lives are blighted too. Suicide rates amongst glbt youth are higher than for the general population and the litany of homophobic attacks and murders in New Zealand is a disgrace. If this 14-year old was not the son of a prominent politician we may have filed his postings for inclusion sometime within a broader feature. But he is his father's son and his father must take some responsibility. That's why we have chosen to direct our primary concern at Bill English, the parent. He chose to get into politics, aimed to be the Nation's leader, and promotes 'family values' with a high moral tone. He must have known that there could be a down side for family members. Finally, we discussed our concerns about the story confidentially with a number of experienced media and legal advisers, both gay and straight. Universally, their advice was to run the story. So we have run it, and we invite you to read the story on our Daily News section (link provided below), and to follow the link below the story to the profile, poke around amongst its postings and judge for yourself. The homophobic comments are posted publicly and somewhere in this kid's family is where responsibility for them lies. We hope that some people sit up and take notice of this issue, that some kind of genuine apology is offered, and that somewhere a few people, perhaps amongst the thousand or so who have viewed this evil homophobic posturing think twice about its consequences and what it says about a sector of New Zealand society, even in the best, most advantaged and educated families.     Jay Bennie - 24th September 2007

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 24th September 2007 - 7:24pm

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