JUDITH LENART AGAINST THE NELSON MAIL

The New Zealand Press Council received an interesting and thoughtful complaint from Judith Lenart of Nelson against the Nelson Mail arising out of an opinion column written by Karl du Fresne entitled “ People of Serbia share blame”, subtitled “VIEWPOINT”, and published on 24 April 1999. Another article on the same subject and published a month later on 22 May 1999 entitled “History can’t justify atrocities” has an important bearing on the complaint.

The Council did not uphold the complaint.

The April article began by the author placing racism at the forefront of his opinion. After identifying two definitions of racism the article continued: “But for probably for the first time in my life, I have to plead guilty to that second form of racism: ‘antagonism towards other races.’To be more precise, I have to plead guilty to it in respect of one specific racial group. I refer to the people of Serbia.

“The events of the past few years in the Balkans have produced in me a deep detestation of all things Serbian. I don’t take any pride in this, but neither do I apologise for it. Humanity demands that we are repelled by the vile acts carried out in recent years in the name of Serbian nationalism.

“I am forced reluctantly to the conclusion that they are fundamentally a deeply unattractive people, brutal and malignant.”

The article then went on to concede the probability that the aforesaid comments
was a technical breach of the Race Relations Act. The complainant raised this point but the Council in this adjudication puts any possible breach of that Act to one side, as it is not for the Council to pass on that issue.

The complainant first lodged her complaint with the editor in a letter dated 3 May 1999. There she drew attention to parts of the article reproduced above and to other parts contained therein that she considered were objectionable. She mobilised her complaint about the article in the following way: “Read in its entirety, the article is deeply offensive, not only to Serbians and those of Serbian descent, but to all who, like myself, are affronted by racism. By most normal criteria – objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy – the piece falls abysmally below acceptable standards, and represents a breach of the Race Relations Act.”

The complainant in later correspondence suggested a journalist, such as Karl du Fresne, should not write and have published opinion pieces. That was refuted by the editor and we think rightly so. If the labelling is there, as it was in this case, the practice is entirely acceptable.

In his reply the deputy editor agreed the article “was a particularly strong expression of his opinion” and went on to make the point that the columnist was not condoning racism but it [the article] “is in fact a condemnation in very strong terms of the racist ‘ethnic cleansing ’ policies being pursued by the people of Serbia.” He rejected the complaint.

The complainant then lodged her complaint with the Press Council. In the May article the columnist returned to the subject. He began by noting that his April article caused a “…[B]lizzard of letters attacking me for my recent column on Serbia….” He did make a material concession in these terms:

“To treat all people of Serbian descent as sharing culpability for the barbaric behaviour of Milosevic and his brutish gangs of murderers and rapists was quite plainly simplistic and wrong, and offensive to those Serbs who adhere to humanitarian values and are shamed by the frightful acts carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism.

“To the many good and decent Serbian people living in New Zealand, therefore, I apologise. It was quite wrong of me to visit upon them the sins of the vile people who dishonour the name of Yugoslavia. Does this mean I also retract the rest of my comments? Not for a moment.”

This is the plainest self-admonition and apology published by the writer of a questionable part of his first article. Ms Lenart had complained before the May article. When put to the complainant she declined to accept as sufficient the retraction and apology of the columnist over his too sweeping condemnation of all Serbs in his first column. The complainant, when the possibility of withdrawal was put to her, nominated conditions one of which was that the newspaper itself acknowledges that the April article " fell below acceptable standards ". The editor stood by his decision to publish and would not accede to the conditions sought to be imposed and therefore the Council must adjudicate.

As the Council understands the complaint it is more than the over inclusive condemnation of all Serbs but other parts of the column, some of which have been reproduced in the earlier part of this adjudication. The columnist has only retracted and apologised for one part of the April column but with that exception stands by the rest. For completeness this adjudication disposes of both the April and May columns.

There can be no question but that Mr du Fresne expressed his views in both columns in the strongest and most forceful terms. He used rhetoric and passion to convey to his readers his unqualified repugnance of the present Serbian government, its people and its leader Slobodan Milosevich. Part of the rhetoric was to charge himself with racism and to plead guilty. Is Mr du Fresne by using that device, and others, to attract attention and support for his views in truth indulging in racial hatred and impliedly agitating against Serbs everywhere?

Selecting some sentences and phrases from the April column and branding those parts as fomenting racial hatred that calls for disapprobation by the Press Council does not provide the answer. The Council believes it should go past the rhetorical devices and strategies to shock and awaken people to the brutality of what is happening in this year, in the Balkans, and instead go to the substance of the column.

The first piece is not for racial hatred, it is against it. It is not for violence, but against it. The central point of the second column is that recourse should not be had to history to explain but that the violence should be halted right now. The political message of the piece is that Nato bombing be supported for the sole purpose of stopping the killing of thousands of Kosovars and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. When ethic cleansing is the issue some columnists choose not to express themselves by detached analysis using language of cold objectivity but prefer to startle and shock.

To accuse oneself of the detestable racism and to plead guilty is in truth a device for demonstrating how evil racism is because it is able to infiltrate and contaminate the columnist against his own better judgment. The illustration had sacrificial overtones.

This was not writing of an irresponsible, reckless or promiscuous nature. It was powerfully expressed argument laced with emotion and passion. The Council in the name of objectivity, balance and judgment should not interfere with the freedom to write and publish such material. This is highly emotive writing but it does not call for disapprobation by the Council.

The complaint is not upheld.

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