MARTYN BRADBURY AGAINST STUFFMartyn Bradbury complained that a report on the Stuff website about comments by Independent MP Hone Harawira on the killing of Osama bin Laden misquoted and misrepresented what he had said.
The complaint is not upheld, but the issue raises questions about the online treatment of developing stories, reaction to them and disappearance of the original item as the story develops – and how organisations like the Press Council can adjudicate on constantly evolving, impermanent "new media". This is the first complaint of this nature the Council has received.
On May 2, 2011 the TVNZ Te Karere programme featured Hone Harawira commenting on the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Mr Harawira, speaking in Maori, said bin Laden was a fighter for "the rights, the land and the freedom of his people".
His remarks prompted controversy, and a subsequent apology from him about how he had expressed himself. His comments had been seen as support for bin Laden's actions which was a mistake, he said.
On May 5 the Stuff website reported his (translated) comments in the context of a wider political reaction story. Later, Stuff amended its report.
This complaint concerns the original Stuff report – now unobtainable – and its later change.
Mr Bradbury said the first Stuff report misquoted Mr Harawira. He claimed Stuff had said Mr Harawira "celebrated bin Laden's life". Later it had amended its report to say "celebrate life".
Mr Bradbury said Stuff had "totally misreported and misquoted Hone". After misquoting him, it had re-edited its own story. Stuff's report had left the impression that Mr Harawira celebrated the life of Osama bin Laden.
Editor Mark Stevens said the report was edited as part of regular updating of a developing story. "In this case, the word 'his' was removed to better align the copy with the translation provided by Te Karere."
He disputed Mr Bradbury's claim that Stuff had misquoted Mr Harawira. "The entire interview was about Mr Harawira's thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden so his response was therefore in relation to bin Laden."
Stuff had not changed the tone or meaning of what was attributed to Mr Harawira.
As the original Stuff story has not been provided, the Press Council has to rely on what is available on the Stuff site. The relevant material (Mr Harawira's words, translated from te reo):
“It is custom for Maori to honour and mourn the deceased. So I acknowledge him and bid him farewell, return to your ancestors who wait for you behind the veil of death.
"Despite what the media said his family, his tribe, his people are mourning, they mourn for a man who fought for the rights, the land and the freedom of his people," Harawira told TVNZ's Te Karere on Monday.
Also, the phrase complained of was in reported speech and was not a quote: People should not damn bin Laden but celebrate the positive aspects of [his] life.
This complaint puts the Press Council in an unusual position. Mr Bradbury quotes from a report that no longer exists in its original form, as Stuff updated it as a developing story. However, Stuff has admitted editing the original report by deleting the word "his", and it does not resile from the use of the word celebrate.
Stuff’s system does not allow retrieval of original versions of up-dated stories, unless a copy has been separately saved.
It would have been helpful, but not essential in this case as the facts are not disputed, if Mr Bradbury had made a "screen grab" of the Stuff report which upset him at the time, and then supplied the Press Council with a print-out of that.
Significantly, the man directly concerned, Mr Harawira, has not complained. It is also significant that Mr Harawira had to apologise for his remarks, and clarify them.
This complaint is not upheld.
Stuff has acknowledged altering the story to better align with the translation provided by Te Karere. The story was accompanied by a video-clip of the Te Karere interview, which included a translation with English sub-titles, from which readers could draw their own conclusions.
The Council is not entirely sure that there was a misrepresentation. It is significant that Mr Harawira had to apologise and then clarify his original remarks after his comments, and not just the contested phrase, were widely seen as support for bin Laden.
Any misquote around the use of “his” was fleeting and overtaken by editing and updating of the story.
It is one of the advantages of on-line copy that alterations / updates / corrections can be easily made. Stuff has advised they are upfront about corrections and mark stories appropriately where a correction has been made.
It is unfortunate that the Council was not able to view the article complained about. Certainty must exist about the source material before the Press Council can consider upholding a complaint, though that is not material to this case.
Given the changing nature of on-line copy prospective complainants are urged to take a hard copy or screen-grab if they have concerns about an on-line article.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.