DAVID CUMIN AGAINT STUFF

Case Number: 2951

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Bias

Overview

[1] Dr David Cumin, a director of the Institute of Israel of New Zealand, has complained about a sentence in a column by Joe Bennett run on Stuff and in four Stuff-owned newspapers. TitledAmid much grunting and help from a puppy, a fallen flagpole is righted the column was published on July 29, 2020.

[2] The column was a whimsical piece about the flagpole in his yard coming down after “years of thrumming”, a puppy and what flags mean to people.

The Complaint

[3] Dr Cumin complains that the column included the line, “Last week an Israeli woman was arrested for wearing a Palestinian flag as a mask”. He says this is factually incorrect.

[4] Dr Cumin complains under Principle 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which includes the requirement that publications “should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission”.

[5] He says while there had been photos published around the world of a woman being arrested at protests in Israel with her face partially covered by a Palestinian flag, “the woman in the photograph was almost certainly being arrested for something other than wearing a mask”.

[6] The important distinction is that the woman was arrested while wearing a mask, not for wearing a mask. Mr Bennett’s inaccurate assumption shows “unconscious bias against Israel” and fails to understand it is a liberal, democratic nation.

The Response

[7] Stuff’s News Director, Opinion, Grant Shimmin handled the complaint, sent on July 30.

[8] Mr Shimmin was on leave the week the complaint arrived, but a colleague emailed Mr Bennett while Mr Shimmin was away. By the time he returned Mr Bennett had not replied. Mr Shimmin rang Mr Bennett, who claimed to have seen a story about a woman being arrested for wearing a Palestinian mask, but couldn’t remember where.

[9] Mr Shimmin looked for such a story but couldn’t find one and Mr Bennett said he was happy to apologise for failing to verify the facts of his claim. Mr Shimmin replied as such to the complainant.

[10] Mr Shimmin missed Dr Cumin’s reply the next morning and “sometime later” received an email from Dr Cumin asking if the apology had been run. Mr Shimmin replied apologising for the lapse and telling Dr Cumin he had since found a photo of a woman being arrested while wearing a flag during a protest against Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

[11] Dr Cumin replied on a Saturday evening and Mr Shimmin again missed the email at the start of the next week. “A couple of days later” Dr Cumin emailed again saying his complaint had not been dealt with and he was coming to the Media Council. Mr Shimmin “immediately alerted our Editor in Chief and the editor of The Press to the situation”.

[12] Finally, Mr Shimmin emailed Dr Cumin once more saying his point was accepted and removed the sentence from the online story. The next day, August 26, the four newspapers ran a correction that read “An assertion in Joe Bennett’s column of July 29, that an Israeli woman had been ‘arrested for wearing a Palestinian flag as a mask’, could not be verified. Its inclusion is regretted”.

The Decision

[13] The sentence referring to the woman wearing the flag raised by the complainant was clearly a mistake. Although no-one has clarified why the woman was being arrested, there’s no evidence it was for the reason Mr Bennett gave (ie wearing the Palestinian flag as a mask).

[14] Dr Cumin says this shows the writer has an anti-Israel bias, but that is drawing a long bow. The column is about a flagpole in the author’s backyard, which leads to a brief reflection on the importance of flags to some people. He gives some examples, referencing Israel and America. There’s no reason to think the choice of those countries is anything other than random. Mr Bennett’s error speaks more to a poor memory than a poor view of Israel.

[15] Stuff rightly recognised its error, corrected the story online and wrote a clarification in print. That should have resolved the matter, except that Stuff’s handling of the complaint was slack to the point of dismissive.

[16] Mr Shimmin was on leave when the complaint arrived and Stuff inexplicably was unable to call Mr Bennett and resolve the issue until he returned. When he did, emails from the complainant were missed not once, but twice.

[17] By his own account, Mr Shimmin established upon his return that Mr Bennett could not verify the claim in his column and was happy to apologise. But nothing was done. There is no explanation offered why further correspondence was needed and why it took weeks after that for Stuff to correct the piece and run the clarification.

[18] While the error was not egregious, it was an error and the complainant had every right to expect it to be dealt with respectfully and promptly. The Council has dealt with a number of complaints this year where media have missed emails and complaints have been handled slowly and sloppily. Stuff, and all publications, need to ensure they have systems in place so that complaints can be dealt with while staff are on leave, that emails are properly checked and complaints are dealt with swiftly. Correcting a story a month after publication is not satisfactory.

Decision

[19] On the matter of the complaint under Principle 1, the error does not appear to have been made out of any inherent bias and was peripheral to the purpose of what was otherwise a light-hearted column. For all the delays, it was eventually corrected prior to Media Council’s consideration and the offending sentence has been removed, as Dr Cumin wanted.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.