KIWIS FOR BALANCED REPORTING ON THE MIDEAST (AUCKLAND) AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDKiwis for Balanced Reporting on the Middle East (KBRM) via its Auckland representative, Chris Morey, complained that an article in the New Zealand Herald contained sufficient errors and omissions of fact to have breached Press Council Principles in respect of accuracy, balance and fairness.
KBRM also complained that the article was printed as news although it was primarily an opinion piece and thus the newspaper had breached Principle 6, which demands a distinction between the reporting of facts and the passing of opinion or comment.
The two complaints are not upheld.
The report was published in the news section of the NZ Herald on December 30, 2009.
It was headlined “Student on a mission in West Bank” and introduced by “An Auckland woman tells Glen Johnson of her experiences in the troubled territories”.
“Majdoleen” (a pseudonym) outlined her impressions gathered during a month in the West Bank, working as a volunteer for the International Women’s Peace Service.
The reporter provided details which made clear Majdoleen’s personal point of view, such as her Muslim background and that the IWPS is pro-Palestinian.
The interview consisted mainly of Majdoleen’s general comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but one section focused on a visit made to a mosque damaged by residents from a nearby Jewish settlement.
KBRM first wrote to the Herald in general terms complaining about the lack of balance in “an uncritical and sympathetic interview with an activist for a pro-Palestinian organisation”. An article of similar length and prominence showing Palestine in a more positive light was requested in recognition of “the need for true balance”.
When the newspaper declined this request, Mr Morey wrote a further letter detailing the errors, omissions and misrepresentations he found in the report.
He submitted a list of fourteen items.
It is not necessary to specify all of these here, but it includes errors in the spelling of place names and various omissions such as failing to note the official Israeli condemnation of the desecration of the mosque. He also questioned Majdoleen’s description of the extent of the vandalism and graffiti, disputing, for example, that the building itself had been set “ablaze” as she had claimed, and, finally, challenged her “loaded language”, such as calling Israel’s position “colonial and imperial”, “unjust” and “inhumane”.
He also strongly disputed the use of “illegal under international law” which was used by the journalist to describe Jewish settlements in the area and the use of “occupation” used by the interviewee to describe Israel’s control of the West Bank.
KBRM argue that the legal situation is confused and that “illegality” and “occupation” should not be published as “unchallenged fact in the Herald’s pages”.
This list of “errors and omissions” was also submitted in the subsequent formal complaint to the Press Council.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Herald’s deputy editor, David Hastings, rejected the various points made by KBRM.
He suggested that the variations in spelling of place names (Yousof/Yasuf and Haris/Hares) of the villages was a trivial matter.
He stressed that Majdoleen’s recall about the damage to the mosque was in line with an earlier AP report of the incident which had appeared in the Herald on 16 December. Further, and later, Mr Hastings pointed out that coverage of the fire by Haaretz and Ynet, an Israeli news service, used “set ablaze” and “arson” to describe the intent and extent of the fire. Again this fitted with what Majdoleen reported from her visit to the site one day later.
He explained that while the Majdoleen interview did not mention Israeli condemnation of the vandalism, the December 16 story had focused on that very issue – it was headlined “Chief rabbi blasts mosque attack”.
A letter to the editor, published on January 5, had also stressed the Israeli authorities’ denunciation.
Words such as “inhumane”, “unjust” and “colonial” had indeed been used to describe the Israel position, but these were the words of the interviewee and she was entitled to express her opinion.
He defended the use of both “illegal” and “occupation” for the Jewish settlements on the West Bank by quoting from the International Court of Justice. “ . . . Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinan Territory . . . have been established in breach of international law.” And further, “. . .these territories remain occupied territories and Israel has continued to have the status of occupying Power." (both 2004)
Finally, in summary, the deputy editor accepted the need for balance. For example, the Johnson interview of Majdoleen (December 30) was itself a balancing extension of the AP report (December 16) and the subsequent letter to the Editor (January 5) provided yet another perspective or balancing element.
However, the overall aim of the NZ Herald was to achieve balance over time, not by immediately countering one story with another giving the other side’s perspective.
Discussion and Decision
First, it is noted that KBRM eventually withdrew its complaint against the description of the fire and graffiti damage to the mosque, because the newspaper made “a plausible response” to its criticisms.
The Press Council found the Herald’s responses convincing rather than merely “plausible”.
KBRM also withdrew, in similar vein, complaints against mis-spellings of place names. Mr Hastings had pointed out that there are frequent variations in English transcriptions of Arabic words.
The complaint about failing to mention in the interview that the Israeli authorities had also denounced the attack on the mosque is clearly countered by the December 16 account of the incident, which focused on the condemnation by the Chief Rabbi. In addition the letter to the editor of January 5, stressed that other rabbis and politicians had expressed “outrage and disgust over the horrific act of vandalism”.
KBRM complained that Majdoleen had used “subjective” terms in her commentary of the situation in the West Bank but the interviewee was asked to express her opinion and she was perfectly entitled to her own words.
The Council also notes that her opinions and words are clearly indicated by the use of quotation marks.
The Council further notes that the journalist included enough background so the reader would understand her perspective – she had a Muslim background and was working for a group with a pro-Palestine leaning.
In any case, the newspaper was clearly justified in reporting her general experiences and what she saw the day after the attack on the mosque. She was a young woman from the newspaper’s catchment area who had lived and worked as a volunteer in the West Bank. Moreover, and importantly, she had visited the mosque the day after the attack. This had been given considerable media coverage, including the story in the Herald only two weeks earlier.
KBRM took particular exception to the words “illegal” and “occupation”, despite the citing by the deputy editor of the conclusions of the International Court of Justice. KBRM acknowledge that international law on the subject is “confused” and “unclear” but argue that the ICJ is not empowered to make or enforce international law.
Certainly the legal issues surrounding Israel’s position are complex and confusing and date back many decades. However, given the unequivocal statements from the ICJ the Council takes the view that the newspaper is entitled to use this terminology.
The Press Council also notes that “Occupied Territories” is a term frequently used by international media to describe the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Finally, the complainant argues that this report should have been published as an opinion piece rather than published in the news section, precisely because it featured so much from Majdoleen’s subjective point of view. Thus, according to KBRM, it transgressed the Principle that “publications should, as far as possible, make a proper distinction between the reporting of facts and the passing of opinion”.
However, within the piece the facts (about Majdoleen and the IWPS) and the opinions (her feelings about the Israeli-Palestine conflict) are clearly and carefully demarcated.
Further, interviewing an observer or participant to ask for their views about an event or situation is obviously routine newspaper practice. That such views might cause argument or even offence to those who hold different views is inevitable but it is also the essence of press freedom.
Despite the many grievances listed in support, the Press Council finds nothing to substantiate these complaints and they are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.