An online petition has been organised demanding New Zealand’s Express Newspaper apologise over it’s reporting of the resignation of a New Zealand Aids Foundation employee.
The background to this story is that the employee, Mr Paul Heard was assaulted a few months back in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. Clearly upset, angry and probably in pain, Paul made a very personal and (according to some) racist statement on Facebook about his attackers.
Subsequently, Paul resigned from his role as Community Engagement Coordinator for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF), but neither he nor the Foundation have stated why he left the role.
Both Express newspaper and the now defunct GayNZ ran details about the incidents, but this story from Express has raised a bitter argument in the Auckland rainbow communities and the launching of the said petition.
I have a number of thoughts on this whole sorry affair.
The first is I feel genuine sadness and concern for Paul, a man who has done a huge amount of good work for the community in Auckland, both as a business man and an employee of the NZAF. Paul is someone I have known for many years, and I know how respected and loved he is in the community.
To be viciously assaulted three times on K Road, a place the queer community views as a spiritual home, must be devastating. To have that incident and his employment matter exposed in the press can only add to the anger, frustration and real hurt he must be feeling.
Is what he said about the incident racist?
In his original post on Facebook, Paul wrote that he was attacked by “arsehole Polynesians.”
He also wrote:
“I wanna remind you arseholes, Maori and then European and you are the interlopers. How fucking dare you. And if you think you can take control, I’ll introduce Trump to our so called paradise. Or better still, fuck off back to your island in the Pacific.”
These are no doubt strong inflammatory words, and probably not the type of thing that most people would find acceptable.
But lets get this in context.
1. They were written by someone who had just been assaulted and also witnessed his boyfriend be beaten even worse. He was clearly angry and deeply hurt when he wrote those words.
2. It is the third time he has been assaulted on the K Road strip.
3. Although he identified the race of his attackers, he certainly didn’t denigrate all Polynesian people.
Obviously these are not words that look great on paper or when discussed by people away from the incident. But just imagine how he was feeling when he wrote those words. And I mean REALLY think about it.
Did it cause him to lose his job?
His resignation may have nothing at all to do with the assault, but if there is a connection, did Paul resign voluntarily or was he asked to leave because of his public comments about his assault?
We don’t know the answer to that because neither Paul or the NZAF will comment further on the story. The important point here is: if he was pushed, was the process involved fair and legal? If not, then Paul should get in touch with an employment lawyer.
Was Express newspaper right to run the story?
We have to ask ourselves – is this a story that is in the public interest? After all that is the long-standing excuse media use to run any story.
In this case, I believe that yes, this story is in the public interest.
There is an expectation that queer media will report on issues and people in the community. Both Express and the former GayNZ have done this for years. The stories run the gamut from social pictures in venues to issues about Pride and of course prominent people. There is also a long history of gossip in our gay press – who can forget Out Magazine and Connie Caustic!
Although we may not like what is written about him, Paul Heard is a public figure in our community and therefore cannot be immune from being reported on. There are of course some stories that are of a private nature and do not warrant publication unless there is a vital need to do so.
In this case however, by posting on Facebook, Paul himself brought this matter into the public realm. His relative ‘celebrity’ and his high profile role at the NZAF ensure that he is a person our community is interested in.
My views about the Express story.
Firstly, Express has an obligation to report fairly and accurately, and they have clearly outlined the ‘facts’ as they see them.
But I believe Express have done their readers and Paul a disservice. I see no attempt to get deeper into this story.
Did the paper seek out comment from people who know and love Paul?
Did they contact victim support or a counselling organisation and find out what an assault victim goes through?
This would have been quite an important point I would have thought given Paul has now been assaulted three times on K Road.
Express needs to remember that it is an outlet that is intimately connected to its audience. It is not as remote from that audience as say NewsHub or the New Zealand Herald are to the wider New Zealand public.
Express journalists know the people they report on and the community know the journalists.
After nine years hosting Queer Nation I understand what a dilemma it is to tell stories about a community you are so intimately connected with. Do you air the dirty laundry? Do you report on conflict and hypocrisy within the LGBT communities? Or do you simply report on the good stuff? Whatever you do, you will have an impact on people you know very well, and they sure as hell, will have an opinion on what you do.
So ultimately, Queer media treads a fine ethical line between journalistic standards and supporting and nurturing the community it is reporting on. It is a dynamic that is both rewarding and deeply challenging.
Express was certainly within its rights to run this story, but perhaps they could have found a way to tell it that enlightened us and explored the obvious pain of the man at the centre of it.
The petition can be accessed here.