LYN GAUTIER, CHRIS MOREY AND MICHAEL KUTTNER AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALDLyn Gautier, Chris Morey and Michael Kuttner complained about a New Zealand Herald feature published on December 22, 2011 concerning maltreatment of donkeys in Israel and the Middle East. The complaint is not upheld.
The date of publication is significant, as it was just before Christmas. Indeed, the introductory paragraph refers to a Christmas card on the mantelpiece of the author, a British veterinarian, depicting a donkey outside a snow-covered stable in a classic nativity image. The feature contrasts the popular image with reality, describing the cruelties inflicted on modern-day donkeys in the Middle East. Israel is its particular focus.
Written in emotional, first-person feature style, it cites eyewitness accounts and describes the efforts of those trying to save the abused animals and prevent more cruelty. The headline is "Heavy burden of abuse for donkeys in the Holy Land".
The story originally came from Britain's Telegraph Group, but the Herald version was attributed to the Independent. The original story's final paragraph was edited out in the Herald version.
The complainants said the story was unfairly focused on Israel and Jerusalem; inaccurately suggested that Israelis were responsible for the cruelty; had an inaccurate "Holy Land" headline and sub-heads; and criticised the picture of Jerusalem and its caption. (Jerusalem was only referred to in the caption, it was not mentioned in the body of the story at all.) Their central concern was that the story's repeated use of the "Holy Land" description immediately conjured up an image of Israel, and then Jews, in readers' minds. However, the story applied to the Middle East, not just Israel.
They said that the way the story was written suggested that the cruelty was perpetrated by Jews whereas most donkeys were owned by Palestinian Arabs.
The complainants also said it was the "fault" of the Herald that they chose to complain, because it printed "volumes of anti-Israel articles, and letters detrimental to Israel, while never printing anything favourable".
They said the report was inaccurate by omission of various salient facts, contained "intruded opinion", and featured inaccuracies and misrepresentation. Jerusalem was depicted as a place where people were too poor to use anything other than donkeys as transport. One complainant had lived there for 20 years and had never seen donkeys there, although some could be used in the narrow streets of Arab east Jerusalem.
"If the article means to refer only to east Jerusalem, it failed to make that clear..."The report had failed to mention that the donkey rescue charity featured was an Israeli charity. However, changes to the original report by the Herald conveyed a negative impression of Israelis.
One complainant said the "bottom line is that the NZH version differed in its headline, its photo and caption and the way the article was edited."
The Newspaper’s Response
Weekend Herald editor David Hastings said it was a first-person feature about the good work of a man who rescued ill-treated donkeys in Israel.
"The complaint is paradoxical. It concludes by saying 'It is not our intention to blacken the reputation of Palestinian Arabs, many of whom no doubt treat their livestock humanely' yet the body of the complaint sets out to do just that."
He contended that all the points raised in the complaint were irrelevant. The article did not set out to apportion blame on cultural or ethnic lines, but focused on the good work of the charity man. It also made the point that donkeys had become increasingly important to poor people around the world, not just Palestinian Arabs or Israelis, as fuel became more expensive.
"In other words, it is a story about global poverty, animal cruelty and one man's battle to do something about it in one place."
Press Council View
The complainants take an extreme view of motives behind this story and the way it was edited, instanced particularly by their Jerusalem references. Its publication was timed to contrast idealistic images of Christmas nativity scenes with present-day cruel realities. The complainants accuse the Herald of deliberate use of the term "Holy Land" to further what they say is its anti-Israeli stance. However, at Christmas time use of the Holy Land term in a headline is particularly appropriate for a story such as this, while its "heavy burden of abuse for donkeys" is also a clever hook to the story's content.
The complainants ascribe motives to the Herald which go far beyond the story's exposure of cruelty. Although the story focuses on Israel, and the work of the group dedicated to protecting horses and donkeys there, the feature extends to WSPA – the World Society for the Protection of Animals which works in more than 160 countries.
It is unclear whether the original story appeared in the Independent (as noted by the Herald) or the Telegraph Group (as noted by the complainants). The Council notes that the Herald version omitted the last paragraph of the original story which had more detail about the WSPA's need for more resources and how readers could contact it to help.
But the Herald is free to edit and display a contributed story as it sees fit, by abbreviating and illustrating, and contributing its own headlines and captions. In this case the Herald's concluding paragraph was emotional and abrupt, but in keeping with the rest of the feature. New Zealand's newspapers do not need to give a free "plug" to a charity, especially an overseas one.
The feature was emotive and effective. Ascribing darker, more far-reaching motives to it is a stretch too far. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.