GOPAL HARLOW AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2991

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On January 11, 2021 Stuff published an article leading with the sentence “Banned by social media and abandoned by some staff after inciting a riot at the US Capitol, US President Donald Trump and a dwindling circle of advisers plan a defiant final week in office, according to people familiar with the matter.”

2. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

3. The complainant, Gopal Harlow, says that it is false to claim that former President Trump encouraged or incited violence, there is no evidence for this claim, and in fact President Trump called for peace. He asserts that it is the “habit of your publication to lie to and gaslight the NZ public in your coverage of the US government”. Mr Harlow states that Media Council Principles breached were Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Comment and Fact; and Subterfuge.

The Response

4. Stuff Deputy Editor Janine Fenwick does not accept Mr Harlow’s complaint, or his account of former President Trump’s actions. She notes that in the lead up to 6 January, Mr Trump actively encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol with comments such as, “Be there, will be wild”.She quotes Mr Trump’s speech on the day to the crowd heading to the Capitol “….you will never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, you have to be strong”. His comments also included “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”. At the same event his personal lawyer called for “trial by combat”. Mr Trump stayed silent for more than two hours after his supporters began storming the Capitol. He then told rioters in a video, “We love you. You’re very special”, while at the same time asking them to go home. This video was removed by Facebook and Twitter as in breach of their rules. It was not until the day after the riot that Mr Trump condemned the violence.

5. Ms Fenwick noted Mr Harlow said Mr Trump’s call for peace was evidence that he did not incite the riot. Ms Fenwick says the article complained of was one of more than 100 published on Stuff between January 7 and 11 on the breach of the Capitol. Many of these examined various aspects of the incidents, and Mr Trump’s actions and role in the events. This extensive coverage was the background to the use of the phrase “inciting a riot”.

The Decision

6. Surrounding facts have strongly backed Stuff’s statement on 11 January that Mr Trump incited his followers. These include the motion for impeachment of Mr Trump because of his actions in relation to the riot, lodged in the US Congress in January 2021; statements of major US leaders about Mr Trump’s accountability for the riot including by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; and the claims of supporters that they were entitled to be in the Congress building because they believed the President himself had invited them to be there. However, the point at issue is whether, on 11 January 2021, Stuff was justified in stating that President Trump had incited the riot at the Capitol.

7. It is relevant to note that at the time international and US media were making similar statements. For example, a UK Guardian headline on 8 January read “Incitement: a timeline of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric before the Capitol riot”. A New York Times headline read “Mob Attack, Incited by Trump, Delays Election Certification”. The global media generated a tsunami of coverage of the extraordinary events at the US Capitol in the lead up to the swearing in of new President Biden. Stuff itself says it published more than 100 stories on these events.

8. It is also relevant to consider whether saying that President Trump had incited the riot was an unjustified allegation and a prejudgment of outcomes. In the Council’s view the statement by Stuff was a reasonable exercise of freedom of speech, and a reasonable description of the facts and events surrounding the events of 6 January in Washington DC. These include the widely discredited statements by Mr Trump for many months beforehand that the election processes were fraudulent and should not be accepted by his supporters. Stuff was entitled to draw on the large quantity of supporting evidence available from the statements of Mr Trump and others in the lead up to the riot, and at the time; and from the huge blitz of media coverage.

9. Accuracy, fairness and balance, were sustained by the continuing and extensive coverage and the many and varying facts and views reported in the lead up to, during, and after the events of January 6 2021 at the US Capitol. That background coverage had been so extensive, and the actual coverage of the incident so intensive, that the statement was not unfair. Fact and comment were not breached as Stuff was again entitled to report on what many other outlets and sources were saying, especially in relation to an overseas story. The Subterfuge principle is not relevant.

10. The complaint is therefore 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.

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