The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Ms Maire Leadbeater arising from the use of unnamed sources to back up statements made in two articles about terrorism, published in Weekend Herald on 15 September 2001 and The New Zealand Herald on 25 September. Ms Leadbeater contended in particular that two statements relating to the discovery of a possible terrorist “cell” in Auckland in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 should have been presented as “allegations” rather than “assertions of fact”, because the newspapers did not identify their sources and the claims made could accordingly not be verified.

The two articles in question examined issues of global terrorism in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Ms Leadbeater drew the Press Council’s attention to two paragraphs, in lengthy analyses of this weighty and fraught topic, which referred to a supposed presence of terrorist cells in New Zealand. In the first, on 15 September the Weekend Herald commented, “Last year an operation by police and the Security Intelligence Service uncovered evidence in Auckland of a plot to bomb the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney during the Olympics.” The second, In the The New Zealand Herald of 25 September, stated, “The Weekend Herald revealed in August last year that when police discovered the Mt Albert cell, they found evidence suggesting a conspiracy to attack ... (the reactor).”

Ms Leadbeater contended in her complaint to the editor of The New Zealand Herald that the two passages “were never more than a series of unsubstantiated allegations”. The key reference is to a major article of 26 August 2000 in Weekend Herald which drew, it seems, mainly from senior (but unnamed) police sources, to report a possible terrorist plot, based in Auckland, to target the nuclear reactor in Sydney. It says, inter alia, “detectives stumbled on the apparent reactor conspiracy during an investigation into people-smuggling … Agreeing that the evidence had sinister overtones, a senior detective told the Weekend Herald, ‘It is circumstantial and suspicious. If it were not for the Olympic Games they (the Australian authorities) would not be so tetchy. There is quite a bit of interest there’” . The Deputy Editor of the Herald responded to Ms Leadbeater’s claim that the allegations were unsubstantiated, “you and other media outlets might not have been able to substantiate the information but this paper has been happy at all stages to stand by its August 26 2000 lead article. Indeed we have substantiated the information from further sources post publication.”

In a further lengthy article, on 28 August 2000 the Herald gave coverage to the denial of involvement with terrorism by an Afghan refugee living at the house in Auckland where the police had found what they supposed was evidence of such activity. A named Police spokesman, the National Crimes Manager, was quoted as follows, “What we are saying is we do not believe there is now a threat to Sydney or the Olympics, but at the time, there could have been”. The Weekend Herald took up the story again on 9 December 2000 with a piece on the Annual Report of the New Zealand SIS which stated that the Service had monitored contacts between New Zealand residents and overseas terrorists. This article stated “The Weekend Herald understands that the SIS helped the police investigate the possible conspiracy to target the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor on Sydney’s outskirts. Detectives found evidence suggesting such a conspiracy when they searched a Mt Albert home occupied by refugees.”

In the two articles published after the 11 September 200l events an American official was cited, by name, to the effect that New Zealand (among 63 other countries) was being used by terrorist operatives linked to Osama Bin Laden. Various other experts were quoted on more general issues to do with global terrorism. In other words, the Herald papers have drawn on a number of sources for their extended examination of the issues surrounding international terrorism, including the possibility that terrorist activists have operated out of New Zealand. There can be no doubting the public interest in such issues. In this light the Herald coverage has been important and useful.

Ms Leadbeater’s concerns centre on what she believes to be a discrepancy: the 26 August 2000 story made it clear that the information was based on unnamed sources and readers could accordingly conclude that there was an element of doubt attached to the report of a terrorist cell in Mt Albert; yet she thought that the two paragraphs to which she refers in the September 2001 stories left no room for doubt on the matter and did not refer to unnamed sources.

The Press Council notes that the Herald believes it has received further substantiation of the original information behind the 26 August 2000 story since publication. It takes the view that interested readers will follow the sequence of stories of this kind and be able to make up their own minds, as they go along, about the reliability or otherwise of the information cited. The Council does not, in any case, read the two paragraphs at issue in the September 2001 articles as being unequivocal, in their context. It notes that, in one of them the evidence is described as “suggesting” a conspiracy. As for the need to be able to verify published information, the Council is of the opinion that the average reader will know that in the field of clandestine operations and investigations there is little that is clear-cut and for the public eye. The Council does not question the use of unnamed sources for information especially in dealing with matters of this kind; reliance on such sources and protection of their identity is, of course, long-established practice and an important principle.

The Press Council does not uphold Ms Leadbeater’s complaint.

Miss Audrey Young, Mr Jim Eagles and Sir John Jeffries took no part in this Council adjudication.


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