Media Council tosses out complaints about Tusiata Avia The Savage Coloniser poem published on Stuff

  • 14/04/2023

An article about the stage show The Savage Coloniser published on Stuff earlier this year, which contained a poem complainants said incited "racial violence", has been labelled "not a breach of professional standards" by the Media Council.

Stuff published the poem The 250th Anniversary of James Cook's Arrival in New Zealand - written by author Tusiata Avia - which depicted hunting down "white men like" the British explorer. The poem was published within an article about Avia's book The Savage Coloniser making its stage show debut.

Multiple complaints were submitted to the Media Council and Creative New Zealand received backlash from the ACT Party after revelations the stage show received taxpayer funding.

The Media Council, in a decision released on Friday, said those complaints have not been upheld.

According to the decision, the complainants "have right to express their disgust and disagreement, take a different view of colonisation, write letters to the editor, not to read Stuff and consume other media. But they do not have the right to not be offended". 

"Indeed, this poem is clearly intended to offend and to angrily challenge people's views on colonisation, as explained in the feature. We note the Media Council does not have principles on taste and decency; that is the purview of the editor and if readers don't like a publication's taste they can write to the editor or get their news elsewhere," the decision said.

"Several of the complainants argue the poem is racist. Racism is typically defined as discrimination by a powerful institution, group or person against a group or person based on their race or ethnicity. In colloquial terms, it means 'punching down'. So while less powerful groups or people can be discriminatory (and therefore subject to Media Council principles) they can seldom be racist."

In response to the council's decision, ACT leader David Seymour said Kiwis "will be appalled that a double standard is being applied to racism in the media.

Seymour and Tusiata Avia.
Seymour and Tusiata Avia. Photo credit: Getty Images/Twitter

"After receiving a number of complaints about a poem that incites violence against white people, the Media Council concluded the poem 'provides some balance to a long-running debate; about colonisation.

"In a modern liberal democracy, all people should be held to the same standards, but the Media Council believes it is not possible for people of some ethnicities to be racist. That is in itself discriminatory."

Stuff, meanwhile, told the Media Council it was "committed to presenting a range of voices to its audience and, recognising that some would be offended in this case, was careful to provide context for Ms Avia's poem".

"Finally, Stuff underlines that that poem is a work of art, not journalism, yet it still thought long and hard before publishing," the Media Council decision said.

"While several of the complainants viewed the poem as racial hatred masquerading as art, the poem is undoubtedly a work of art and deserves to be judged as such."

The decision said Avia was calling for a conversation about issues such as colonisation, which was highlighted in the Stuff article.

"She has said nothing in real life to incite racial violence and there is nothing to indicate that the poem has provoked any violence in the two-and-a-half years since it was first published."

After gaining attention following the poem's publishing and criticism from ACT, Avia hit back saying the party didn't "understand this poem" - urging them to "understand what they are reading, before making uninformed, uneducated claims".