LISETTE COLLINS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3134

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2021

Decision: Not Upheld

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact
Apology and Correction Sought
Photographs

Overview

1. On 3 September 2021 eight customers were stabbed at a Countdown supermarket in Auckland. As a result of an ongoing surveillance operation, Police were able to intervene quickly, and killed the attacker. The incident generated a great deal of media coverage and public interest and concern. At the time, the Prime Minister‘s remarks included: that it was a terrorist attack; it was despicable and wrong; and stressed that it was carried out by an individual, not a faith.

2. A few days subsequently, on September 6, 2021, Stuff published a news report giving more background on the attacker, in an article headed “the terrorist was a ‘highly damaged’ refugee and efforts to help him failed”. This long and detailed article covered inter alia the attacker’s arrival in New Zealand, his known sympathies for ISIS, reports of his persecution in Sri Lanka, his achievement of refugee status in 2013, the government’s handling of his case, failed attempts to resolve his issues, reports of comments on his mental state, his Police and custody record, and various comments from his family, from professionals who assessed him at various times and information from Immigration and Protection Tribunal proceedings. The piece also covered the withdrawal of the attacker’s refugee status in 2019 and his subsequent appeal against deportation.

3. The Stuff item was illustrated by a graphic photograph, showing the attacker crouching and sighting down the barrel of a firearm.


The Complaint

4. The complainant says the article and headline “rely heavily on the opinion of the author, which are biased towards presenting an unnecessarily sympathetic view of the offender and risks providing a justification for his crimes”. Ms Collins also says Stuff has breached its own code of ethics requiring that information published should be correct; that seeking balance should not compromise accuracy or fairness; that opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact; and that publishing a photograph of the terrorist posing with a rifle was unethical.

5. Ms Collins initially complained to Stuff that the headline calling the attacker a refugee was inaccurate because his refugee status had been cancelled, which should have been reflected in the headline. She says the headline and article contain opinion, are biased and draw a link between his refugee status and his offending. Ms Collins says the report breaches Stuff’s own ethical standards and Article 12 of the Terrorist and National Security Event Media Protocols which require careful use of language to avoid causing undue fear or speculation about a section of the community. The article was insensitive to the refugee community.

6. In relation to the photograph of the attacker posing with a gun, Ms Collin says that although the image may not breach a code of ethics it is insensitive and in poor taste. The complainant also objects to Stuff’s failure to use the same approach to this offender as was used for the Mosque attacker, in that the Christchurch offender’s name was not published.

7. Ms Collins asks that Stuff apologise for its handling of the story, retract the statement that the offender was a refugee, say that no link should be drawn between this crime and the refugee community, apologise to those affected and admit it has failed to meet ethical standards.

The Response

8. Luke Malpass responded for Stuff and addressed Ms Collins’ main points. Stuff does not agree that the use of the word refugee in the headline is inappropriate. The offender had been a refugee and was appealing his loss of refugee status, and against efforts to deport him on the grounds that his status had been revoked. His former refugee status was central to why he was still in the country. The report and headline fell within Stuff’s code of ethics.

9. On the image of the attacker with a gun, he was known to be ISIS inspired, and Stuff was comfortable to run it. He went on to say, “we are now moving away from using that image on the homepage as it clearly upsets some people and we do try to be sensitive around these matters.”

10. On the comparison with the treatment of the Christchurch shooter, Stuff clarified that they had decided to use his name only where necessary; and the Mosque attacker live streamed his attack and sought to make a global political statement. The Countdown attack was fundamentally different. This was a lone wolf attacker who was well known to the police and the justice system, and the government was actively trying to deport him. It was, in Stuff’s view, in the public interest to name him.

11. Nothing in the story denigrated first responders, or refugees in general. “But it does legitimately report around the refugee status of this particular individual which is highly relevant to the incident.”

12. Stuff will not be acceding to the complainant’s request to apologise or retract. It does not believe it has denigrated anyone’s efforts or the refugee community and does not believe it has failed to meet its own ethical standards.

The Discussion

13. The relevant Media Council Principles are: 1. Accuracy Fairness and Balance; 4 Comment and Fact; 6. Headlines and Captions; 7. Discrimination and Diversity; 11. Photographs and Graphics; and freedom of expression and general ethical considerations. The Media Council must determine complaints under its own principles. The Council has carefully considered the complainant’s concerns. We note Stuff’s statement in its response, that these stories are sensitive and complaints about them need to be taken seriously. 

14. On Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, the Council concludes that the article and headline are not substantially wrong in fact, in referring to the offender as a refugee; and the matter was under appeal.  The offender had held refugee status for 6 years. However, the article was unclear on whether an appeal had been lodged against loss of refugee status as well as against deportation. It would have been preferable if Stuff had clarified this point, as did other media reports at the time.

15. On the issue of balance, the Council believes this is very much in the eye of the reader – some could conclude that the account of the offender’s background and the effect of the photograph are unbalanced against him; others might conclude that the same background sought sympathy for the offender. Overall, the Council does not believe the article breaches Principle 1.

16. On the complaint under Principle 4 that the article does not distinguish between opinion and fact, the Council considers that this was a comprehensive and informative factual report. It told the public about the background to a dramatic and violent happening in a supermarket, where people were going about their normal daily activities. The article also shed light on government handling of the offender. This was factual and legitimate public interest journalism.

17. On Principle 6 Headlines and Captions, the offender had held refugee status in New Zealand from 2013 to 2019 and the article said he was appealing his deportation. The Council cannot agree that this headline was inaccurate or misleading, or otherwise in breach of the Principle. On Principle 7 Discrimination and Diversity, the reporting was relevant and in the public interest, and did not in the Council’s view use gratuitous emphasis.

 18. On the use of the photograph of the offender aiming a gun, this was undoubtedly a graphic and shocking image. Stuff has since acknowledged that the photograph was upsetting to some people and have modified their use of the image in response to public concerns. The Council notes that on the one hand, the photograph conveyed dramatic and relevant information about the previous activities of the offender; on the other hand, some could view it as gratuitous and insensitive. On balance the Council believes that Stuff can justify the use of the image as an exercise in freedom of expression and in the public interest. The complaint under Principle 11 is not upheld.
 

19. The complaint by Lisette Collins against Stuff is not upheld.

 

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

 

 

 

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