RICHARD WELHAM AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 876

Council Meeting: MARCH 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Richard Welham complained to the New Zealand Press Council about the headline in the New Zealand Herald published on 12 November. The headline, “ Osama boasts ‘We did it’ in chilling video” raised two issues for Mr Welham.

First Mr Welham claims a lack of accuracy and balance saying that Osama Bin Laden did not claim “We did it”, on the video which was the subject of the associated article. Mr Welham’s second complaint flows from the first, such that if “We did it”, was not said on the video these words should not have been headlined in inverted commas.

The issue of accuracy and balance rests on the reasonableness of the claim made in the headline. In this regard the Herald was in step with most of the western world’s media, which came to the same conclusion as the Herald. The editor provided an article from the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, which reported in the headline: Bin Laden: Yes, I did it. TV and Radio in New Zealand also introduced the video as an admission of guilt by Bin Laden.

On the issue of inverted commas, these are clearly inappropriate if they do not indicate what was said, or as this is a translation, a reasonable interpretation of what was said. The Herald’s editor claims neither, instead says that in keeping with common practice, he has used inverted commas in the headlines to indicate a paraphrasing of the material in the article

The New Zealand Press Council does not uphold that part of the complaint based on accuracy and balance saying that the headline was based upon a reasonable interpretation of the video described in the article. The New Zealand Press Council also does not uphold the second part of the complaint noting that the circumstances surrounding the tape’s release were unusual; against this background to censure the Herald for an error in basic English seems unnecessary. The whole event of Bin Laden’s involvement and video is likely to be a most unusual occasion.

Although not upholding the complaint the Council recommends that quotation marks be used to indicate words that can be attributed to a person, book or passage. Alternatively, their use can extend to jargon and to words used in an unusual manner. In the circumstance presented by the Osama Bin Laden tape, the use of a colon and no quote marks is the most common industry practice. This was the practice adopted by the UK Sunday Telegraph exampled earlier. This approach will remove confusion for readers who expect their English language paper to follow English language rules.

Miss Audrey Young and Mr Jim Eagles took no part in this Council adjudication.