B MAHDAVI AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
B Mahdavi complained to the NZ Press Council about the New Zealand Herald’s usage of “Arabian Gulf” or more simply, “the Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf”. In Mr Mahdavi’s view, both “Arabian Gulf and “the Gulf” are inaccurate and he cited one of the Press Council’s Principles… “that publications should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers…”.
His complaint is not upheld.
Mr Mahdavi wrote to the editor about a financial article which appeared in the Herald in March 2008 and included the phrase “the oil rich nations of the Arabian Gulf”.
He objected to “Arabian Gulf”, pointing out that the NZ Government and the United Nations both used “Persian Gulf” for that body of water.
He viewed both “Arabian Gulf” and “the Gulf” as “illegal and fabricated” terminology.
The deputy editor’s reply was short. He accepted that there had been a breach of their own style in using “Arabian Gulf”. However, “the Gulf” was normal NZ Herald usage and the newspaper would continue that policy.
Dissatisfied, Mr Mahdavi made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
In support, he suggested that UN recognition of Persian Gulf had the force of international convention and attempting to change such a long accepted, historical term smacked of “bias and discrimination”.
He supplied further examples where “Arabian Gulf” had been used in the NZ Herald, to show that the newspaper had contravened its own house style (The Gulf).
Finally, he pointed out that the Broadcasting Standards Authority had upheld a similar breach of accuracy complaint, against the use of “Arabian Gulf” during a broadcast news item. (A complaint filed by Mr Mahdavi.)
The Newspaper’s Response
The deputy editor replied that the newspaper had deliberately adopted the term “the Gulf” to avoid being seen to take sides in the dispute.
Many newspapers used “the Gulf” for that reason and he gave examples of such publications (largely British).
If the very occasional error had been found, some three in five years, this was “not unacceptable” and certainly not systematic breaches of the house style guide.
He stressed that the newspaper had the right to set its own house style and that the Herald would continue to use “the Gulf” despite the complaint, because “the Gulf” allowed the newspaper to maintain its neutral stance.
Further Correspondence and Argument
The complaint replied by pointing out that this complaint was about the specific usage, “Arabian Gulf”, (although “the Gulf” was also inaccurate in his view).
He acknowledged that arguments about the correct name for this body of water are largely political, citing, for example, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s repeated use of “Arabian Gulf” in an apparent attempt to awaken pan Arab forces in the Middle East.
In short, the complainant saw “Arabian Gulf” as propaganda. If the NZ Herald used that term (or even “the Gulf”) they would be taking the Arab side, whereas using the “accurate” term, “Persian Gulf”) they would be taking the side recognised by both the NZ Government and the UN and sanctioned by international laws and conventions.
In his view British publications which avoided “Persian Gulf” were supporting the political and financial interests of the British Government and the British media.
He argued that just because it was a well established policy of the NZ Herald to use “the Gulf” did not mean that it was the correct policy; nor was it a correct policy just because it followed the practice of some (largely British) publications.
The final comment from the deputy editor of the NZ Herald was to reiterate the newspaper’s right to set its own house style on such controversial issues. He also noted that the stretch of water between England and France is called the English Channel by the English and La Manche by the French and no one would expect the English to call it La Manche or the French to call it the English Channel.
Discussion and Conclusion
Some geopolitical background is relevant.
This body of water is bordered on the north and east by Iran, on the south and west by Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. To the north west lie Kuwait and Iraq. In summary, it separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.
Sectarian, ethnic and territorial disputes are endemic. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody was from 1980 until 1988. The war following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 was variously known as the Persian Gulf War, or, more frequently, the Gulf War.
Three islands in the waterway are the subject of a dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Iran controls the islands but the UAE claims them.
Many organisations wishing not to take sides use “The Gulf”. This term also seems to have increasingly wide usage: one can read academic papers about medical problems endemic to the Gulf region, buy cooking books with recipes from the Gulf, examine the interplay between oil and politics in the Gulf.
However, this linguistic middle ground is unacceptable to Iran as Arabian Gulf.
The complainant stressed that Persian Gulf is the only accurate usage, not only because of the undoubted history of the term, but also because the United Nations uses Persian Gulf.
However, that guideline only applies to its own papers, publications and documents.
There is no “international convention” on the use of Persian as opposed to Arabian Gulf/the Gulf, as the complainant would have it.
The UN cannot “rule” on language use nor on place name use throughout the world.
The UN is not the final arbiter here.
If it were some kind of Supreme Court of Toponymy, we would never hear the name Taiwan (which is not recognised by the UN). Equally, countries and publications would use Myanmar (which the UN recognises) and not Burma, but many counties, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, for example, have not accepted that the name change was the legitimate choice of the Burmese people. The twin form Burma/Myanmar is general use in the European Union. In summary, much of the world takes a position different from the UN.
New Zealand’s official stance, as confirmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to endorse the term “Persian Gulf”, although it is recognised that in some instances the Gulf will be used (e.g. the Gulf Cooperation Council).
Even so, there are transgressions. A Cabinet Minister welcomed a new Emirates air service with “it will boost efforts to attract visitors from the Arabian Gulf”. (Practical politics and diplomacy interplay in matters of this kind – would one welcome a new Emirates route by referring to the Persian Gulf?)
A Crown Owned Entity has noted that “the states of the Arabian Gulf represent a dynamic and high yielding opportunity for NZ”.
The NZ Defence Force issues press statements that use Arabian Gulf and “the Arabian Gulf region” appears in its briefing papers.
Perhaps most tellingly, since 2001 NZ has established a medal for service in the Arabian Gulf. i.e. The New Zealand Service Medal (Arabian Gulf)
The Press Council also notes that many authoritative sources use Arabian Gulf and/or the Gulf.
Maps and the place names on the maps are often political constructs and it becomes impossible to delineate an objective truth. Which is accurate, Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf? Here it depends on your political or national or ethnic point of view.
Mr Mahdavi would have it that the NZ Herald should maintain the New Zealand Government’s position which is to use Persian Gulf.
That notion, that a newspaper should follow government policy, is an intriguing idea but hardly an attractive one in a free and open society. It needs to be stated simply and clearly: a New Zealand newspaper has the right to take a position directly opposed to a policy or a position of the government.
The Press Council might have some sympathy for the older term, Persian Gulf, but the waters in this region are indeed murky and the Press Council will not enter them. It is not prepared to uphold complaints against either usage, Arabian Gulf or The Gulf.
In the end, this seemed as much a dispute about sovereignty and territory as a complaint about inaccuracy.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.