The Press Council has not upheld a complaint against an opinion piece comparing Islamic State's abhorrent actions with the punishments and attitudes of Saudi Arabia.

The complaint, by Mike Talks, was made against a column published on the Stuff.co.nz website on January 22, 2015. The column, The Saudis are every bit as sickening as Islamic State, originated from Fairfax Australian correspondent Paul McGeough.

The Complaint
Mr Talks said the column was hugely xenophobic and "somewhat laced with hate" against Muslims. He found it deeply offensive.

While he was not Islamic or from Saudi Arabia, and while Saudi Arabia had "a huge way to go" in terms of crime and punishment, he found the piece xenophobic and racist. He was particularly concerned at its comparisons between Saudi Arabia and IS.

Execution was practised in many countries as a form of criminal punishment - for example, he had not seen United States' policies compared with IS.

His complaint said that news stories written for consumption in Australia came across as vulgar and xenophobic when published elsewhere. While he believed in freedom of speech, the piece did not set out to perform a political analysis of Saudi Arabia but to inflame hatred against Islam.

He cited Press Council principles of Discrimination and Diversity, and Subterfuge, in making his complaint.

The Response
Stuff's editor Patrick Crewdson said the report was an opinion column, not a news story, and clearly identified as such. The column was a valid expression of the author's opinion. The author used strong language to express his point, but it was not racist or xenophobic.

As a critique of the Saudi justice system it was not confined to their use of the death penalty but also the manner in which executions were carried out and the "crimes" in question.

The column's content had not been gained by subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonest means.

In terms of the other principle cited, Discrimination and Diversity, he said the Press Council Principle acknowledged that religion and race were legitimate subjects for discussion where they were relevant and in the public interest. The Principle allowed publications to report and express opinions in these areas provided the emphasis was not "gratuitous".

Stuff.co.nz did not promote racism or xenophobia. "The emergence of Islamic State and the policies of Western-allied governments of the Middle East are self-evidently issues of relevant public interest."

The columnist was the chief foreign correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, an experienced journalist who had specialised in the Middle East who had earned the right to comment on the behaviour of the region's governments.

The complainant said the column made comparisons between IS and Saudi Arabia "as they are both Islamic". However, the columnist's critique was much more specific and detailed than that.

"It is entirely reasonable for someone of Mr McGeough's considerable experience to criticise what he sees as the excesses of a justice system that allows for beheading or fatal stoning for 'crimes' such as homosexuality, and caning for those who express dissent. To do so is no more anti-Muslim than critiquing the Vatican's contraception policy would be anti-Catholic."

The column did not criticise the Saudi population in general or Muslims as a group. Rather it used the term "the Saudis" as shorthand for the Saudi state.

The Press Council's Principle 5 would probably be more appropriate than the principles cited by the complainant. It allowed for the wide freedom of expression when opinion pieces were clearly marked as such - as this column was. Freedom of expression was one of the Council's guiding principles and the Council had repeatedly upheld the right of opinion authors to be provocative and outrageous.

"While strongly worded, this column is a valid, actual critique of the Saudi legal system. It neither promotes xenophobia nor fans the flames of racial hatred."

While admittedly provocative and capable of offending some readers, the column deserved the protection of freedom of expression which the Council had previously advocated for columnists.

The Decision
As noted in Press Council decision 2380, in May 2014, opinions by their very nature may be arguable. They may be robustly expressed and even on occasion offensive or unacceptable to some readers without breaching the standards to be expected of a reputable media outlet. The Press Council has many times endorsed freedom of expression, a fundamental right in a democratic society and a right set down in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

It is clear that the Stuff article in question is an opinion piece, by an experienced journalist well qualified to comment on Middle Eastern affairs. It was a provocative but legitimate comparison of Saudi policies with the widely criticised, widely publicised, abhorrent actions of IS. There is no suggestion by the complainant that it is factually incorrect.

The piece did not involve subterfuge, nor did it contravene the Council's Discrimination and Diversity principle.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
Peter Fa’afiu took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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