JON STEPHENSON AGAINST NATIONAL BUSINESS REVIEWIntroduction
On 7 July 2006 the National Business Review’s fortnightly Media Watch column, contributed by David Cohen, included criticism of the work and views of Jon Stephenson, a journalist specialising in international news and comment. Stephenson complained to the Press Council about the column, citing the Press Council’s principle that “publications should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.” He also complained that the column, and its publication, was motivated by malice.
His complaint is upheld, at least in part.
Cohen began by traversing recent developments in international reporting in the New Zealand media, especially print journalism. In his view, and despite some concerns, local newspapers were improving their coverage of “offshore situations”. He pointed to moving international pieces to more prominent positions, new and talented commentators and editorial decisions to send reporters to cover breaking stories in the Pacific.
Cohen then outlined a different view about the adequacy of local coverage of international affairs, apparently held by Jon Stephenson. He referred to an interview on National Radio, and quoted Stephenson as stressing the need for the media to provide commentary from a New Zealand perspective, rather than simply printing articles sourced from overseas.
Cohen questioned whether it was necessary to have information about some areas, such as Iraq, collected and delivered by New Zealanders and whether a New Zealand perspective on Iraq actually made much sense at all.
Cohen then made some negative comments about Stephenson’s journalism, though praising him for bravery in going to “hotspots” such as Baghdad and for hard work.
Stephenson argued that the claims Cohen made about his professional work were deceptive, inaccurate, dishonest and unfair or unbalanced.
He took particular exception to Cohen referring to him as “the self-described award-winning freelance foreign correspondent” and pointed out that the use of the term “self-described” could mean someone who is boastful of their achievements and/or someone who had not actually won any awards.
He suggested that Cohen had “deliberately misrepresented” his views by quoting selectively from the RadioNZ Mediawatch programme.
He was highly offended by Cohen’s comment that Stephenson “has been on a number of sponsored trips to various international hotspots, most notably Baghdad”. Stephenson thought that Cohen was hinting that his views on better foreign affairs coverage by NZ media were linked to self interest i.e. more work or free trips. He denied the implication. According to the complainant only one of his five trips to Baghdad had been sponsored.
He pointed out an inaccuracy in the column. Cohen stated that Stephenson had graduated from AUT’s journalism school, but according to the complainant, he had not.
Stephenson also disputed Cohen’s claim that he engaged in a “never-ending tour of self-promotional spots”. He found the accusation “without basis and offensive”.
He further complained that Cohen had been misleading when indicating how seldom a New Zealand perspective had been included in Stephenson’s reports from places such as Iraq. According to the complainant he had never argued for an explicitly NZ perspective in every piece; he had argued, however, for a more independent perspective that that often provided by the American media.
The complainant was particularly irked by the columnist’s criticism that “(Stephenson’s) Mideastern dispatches have been . . . thin on presenting real Mideastern voices”. He considered this to be, “at best a demonstration of ignorance on the part of the columnist; at worst, outright dishonesty”.
Cohen’s comment, that in Stephenson’s journalism, “the reporter, rather than the situation being reported on, has always tended to dominate the narrative” was also considered “highly offensive” as well as “misleading and inaccurate”.
Finally, he disputed a criticism of wording that was “a little strange” and “rather odd”, at least according to Cohen. In a quote from an Iraqi talking about Saddam Hussein, “Even an unjust Islamic ruler is better than an unjust occupation”, Cohen found the phrase “Islamic ruler” awkward and posed the question, “did the subject really put it that way?” Stephenson suggested that Cohen was insinuating that either the reporting was sloppy or that Stephenson had changed or concocted the quote. Either insinuation was “highly offensive” to the complainant.
Stephenson concluded by stating his belief that the column, as well as the editor’s decision to publish it, was “motivated by malice and deliberately sought to discredit or undermine my professional reputation”.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor of the National Business Review, Nevil Gibson, did not reply to Stephenson’s initial letter of complaint to the newspaper (October1) but chose to respond once his complaint had been accepted by the Press Council.
He firmly rejected the various complaints.
The editor pointed out that Cohen had acknowledged Stephenson’s “personal bravery” and his commitment when reporting on international hot spots. There was no suggestion of personal antipathy on Cohen’s part.
He noted that Cohen’s Media column was an opinion piece. Strong but honestly held personal opinion was to be expected.
Cohen has some expertise in this area because he had a “lifelong interest in the Middle East”, he had visited and reported on Muslim countries for British and American publications and his articles had also been published locally.
Gibson explained that as far as the expression “self-described award-winning freelance foreign correspondent” was concerned, Cohen was objecting to the term “foreign correspondent” which Cohen understood in “the more traditional sense of a reporter employed and housed overseas over a substantial period of time by a news organisation”. Stephenson had not been so employed.
Cohen clearly disagreed with Stephenson’s “negative assessment” of local media in their commitment to covering international news.
He suggested that as Stephenson commented on and criticised the performance of colleagues and their parent media organisations, he could hardly complain when his own opinion and work were criticised.
In closing, Gibson noted that in the past Stephenson had taken legal action, under the Employment Relations Act, against the owner of NBR, but that matter had been resolved and played no part in his editorial decision to publish Cohen’s comments.
Despite the newspaper’s response, Stephenson stood by his complaint, reiterating his view that Cohen’s article had been motivated by malice.
He submitted examples to show that his reporting was not “thin” on “real Mideastern voices” and pointed to the range of sources quoted.
He stressed that Cohen was clearly wrong in suggesting that the phrase “an unjust Islamic ruler” was odd. Cohen had claimed that “Islamic ruler” was “rather like a New Zealander speaking of a ‘Christianity’ ruler” but he explained that because “Islamic” is an adjective, whereas “Christianity” is a noun, the quote was grammatically correct.
He pointed out that if Cohen and his editor were now disputing the words “foreign correspondent” in “the self-described award-winning freelance foreign correspondent” (because Stephenson did not fit the traditional definition offered), then it was very confusing – four years earlier Cohen himself, in one of his columns for NBR, had written . . . “A correspondent is, as the OED puts it, ‘one employed by a journal to supply it with news from some particular place’”. That definition clearly applied to the complainant.
He found “difficulty” in accepting the editor’s position that his previous legal action had played no part in the decision to publish. He repeated his belief that “personal antipathy and antipathy toward my work” was involved in writing the column and in publishing it.
He claimed that he was not arguing against Cohen’s right to express and publish his opinion – rather, that right had been exercised neither fairly nor responsibly. In his view, Cohen’s criticism was unethical and the “sneering tone, errors and inaccuracies, and the lack of evidence” suggested a “hatchet job”.
Mr Stephenson provided the Council with copies of several of his previously published reports however neither he nor the NBR provided a transcript or recording of the Radio New Zealand Media Watch interview in support of their argument. There are therefore matters which the Council is unable to determine.
It is disappointing that this particular complaint, by one journalist against another, required a formal adjudication by the Press Council.
In an ideal scenario, a prompt letter of complaint to the NBR would have led to an offer by the newspaper to publish a contra piece by Stephenson in rebuttal of Cohen’s criticism.
Nevertheless, Stephenson had the right to take this matter to the Press Council and once he had exercised that right he was entitled to have his complaint considered carefully.
As the editor noted in the newspaper’s defence, this complaint involves the issue of free comment and free speech. It is clear that this was an opinion piece and the Council has frequently stressed the right of columnists to express their honestly-held views strongly and forcefully, even when the content or the tone gives offence.
However, at what point does forceful criticism become unfair or unbalanced criticism? Is there a point where it becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that the criticism is “motivated by malice” and “deliberately seeks to undermine or discredit” Stephenson’s professional reputation? That is the heart of his complaint.
The Council takes the view that much of Cohen’s column can be read as strong but honestly held personal opinion. For example, his comment that Stephenson’s dispatches are “thin” on “real Mideastern voices”. Certainly, the complainant countered with a list of examples from his work that some might find impressive, but “thin” is obviously a highly subjective term. Similarly, Cohen’s claim that “the reporter . . . always tends to dominate the narrative” is simply a matter of opinion.
Further, Stephenson states that his views about the coverage of foreign affairs by New Zealand media were deliberately misrepresented when Cohen quoted only one sentence from the Radio NZ interview, but it is not at all clear to the Council exactly how his views were misrepresented. Cohen’s understanding of Stephenson’s viewpoint is at least one possible interpretation and does not seem to the Council to be “intellectually dishonest”.
In addition, while Cohen’s comment that Stephenson has been “on a number of sponsored trips” might seem to exaggerate, at least some of the travel to “international hotspots” was indeed sponsored. The claim is hardly entirely inaccurate.
The complainant may well have been offended by Cohen seeing his public talks and lectures as merely a form of “self-promotion”. That may not be true, of course, but that is a point of view that Cohen was perfectly entitled to take – and to express.
However, there are two details that gave the Press Council more concern.
The first is the reference to “Jon Stephenson, the self-described award-winning freelance foreign correspondent”. Without Cohen providing any evidence at all to back up “self-described”, that does seem unjustified and it served to hint that he may not have actually won awards for his journalism.
This concern was only compounded by the newspaper’s reply that it was merely disputing the term “foreign correspondent” which it took to mean in a traditional sense. However, the columnist himself seemed to have argued differently in an NBR column four years earlier, when accepting “correspondent” as being anyone “employed by a journal to supply it with news from some particular place”. The Press Council found the editor’s defence tenuous.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the comment about the “strange” and “rather odd” wording in Stephenson’s work, especially followed by posing the question, would the subject “really put it that way?” Stephenson suggests that this has the effect of insinuating that the reporting was sloppy or that he had altered, or worse, made up the quote. It is the view of the complainant, and it is the view of the Council, that this effect was indeed intended by the writer.
However, it is not justified, at least by the example he gives. “Islamic ruler” in the sentence, “Even an unjust Islamic ruler is better than an unjust occupation” does not appear to be as “odd” as Cohen insinuates, whether one argues grammatically or semantically.
In these two areas the column clearly crossed from robust but fair expression of opinion to unfair treatment of the complainant and his professional work. On balance, they are of sufficient weight to justify an uphold decision.
On the more serious complaint, that the writing of Cohen’s column, and its publication in NBR, was the result of personal malice and a deliberate attempt to undermine the complainant’s reputation, the Council does not find, on the evidence before it, sufficient evidence to draw such a conclusion and this part of the complaint is not upheld.
For the reasons noted above the complaint is upheld, on the grounds of lack of fairness. The allegation of malice is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Penny Harding took no part in the consideration of this complaint.