Case Number: 2585

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage


The Press Council considered a complaint that a Telegraph Group article on the alleged gas attack on a rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikoun published inThe Dominion Post failed the test of accuracy, fairness, balance. Fairfax was also criticised for failing to uphold journalistic standards by not fact checking stories supplied by overseas news agencies.

The Complaint

Andrew Hubbard complained that a story published on April 15, 2017 headed “Assad accuses US of inventing attack” was inaccurate.

The headline “Assad accuses US of inventing attack” was misleading when the word used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “fabricated”. The article also failed to fairly report other points made by Assad in an AFP-TV interview in which he denied using chemical weapons as alleged by the United States.

In support of his complaint Mr Hubbard provided documentation, including photos, which he said were evidence the attack was fabricated and that there was no evidence that “victims” suffered the effects of sarin poisoning.

He said the paper’s coverage of the attack at Khan Sheikoun was inaccurate and lacked balance. Statements of the Syrian and Russian Governments were not published, while unsubstantiated assertions of the US and UK were given ample space.

This was a story of great importance on an escalating international conflict and maintenance of journalistic standards in international affairs was critical. Outsourcing foreign stories to external organisations without internal fact checking or quality control was a systemic failure of journalism practice.

International news made up a substantial part of The Dominion Post and the paper was applying no meaningful oversight or rigor to its international content. This was incompatible with Fairfax’s obligations as a member of the Press Council.

The Response

Fairfax central region editor Bernadette Courtney did not respond to specific criticisms of the article made by Mr Hubbard.

She said it needed to be viewed in the context of all coverage on this matter and she struggled to see that Mr Hubbard’s evidence on this story was any more reliable or better than that of theDaily Telegraph’s reporter.

Fairfax did not have overseas-based reporters and its international coverage came from news agencies which were relied on to be accurate. Fairfax did not have fact checkers to work on international content.

While this might not be acceptable to Mr Hubbard it was the harsh reality for all New Zealand media.

The Discussion

New Zealand news media have always relied heavily on news agencies for their international coverage and this will always be the case as it is impractical to cover the globe any other way.

It is axiomatic that they have to rely to a large degree on the veracity of reportage the agencies provide and editors need to exercise their judgement in selecting stories to ensure they provide accurate, fair and balanced coverage. It is understood that any fact-checking will have been undertaken at source.

The Dominion Post draws its international cover from a variety of agencies and has for many years used theTelegraph Group as one of its suppliers.

As for Mr Hubbard’s specific complaints about the story published on April 15 it is hard to support his view that the headline is inaccurate. The words “fabricated” and “invented’ are common synonyms and little turns on the use of one rather than the other.

The story was based largely on a lengthy AFP-TV interview with Assad. It concluded with comment and counter-arguments from other sources.

It led with Assad’s defence of his position and more than half the story was devoted to it. It covered his claims that the US fabricated the chemical attack to justify its military strike and that his Government could not be responsible as it no longer had chemical weapons. It did not detail all his arguments but it fairly and accurately conveyed key points.

The documentation Mr Hubbard provided supported his contention that sarin gas was not used at Khan Sheikhoun. While that may be correct all the major protagonists in this conflict agree that a chemical agent was used.The Dominion Post story repeatedly refers to it as a chemical attack although it includes a line from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that sarin or a sarin-like substance had been detected in samples taken from three victims. This is still clearly a contentious issue and the story reflected that.

Mr Hubbard also argued the paper’s coverage lacked balance because it failed to publish Syrian and Russian Government statements. However, the specific story on which he chose to base his complaint was evidence that the paper did offer balance with a story that clearly outlined Assad’s position.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten and Mark Stevens.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain public member majority.


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