PALESTINE HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALDThe Press Council received a complaint from Mr David Wakim who signed himself as Spokesperson Palestine Human Rights Campaign. The central factual issue concerns the decision by The New Zealand Herald to dispense with the services of Mr Malcolm Evans, the newspaper’s cartoonist of many years standing. The cartoons of Mr Evans apparently have been in the past supportive of the Palestinian position in the Palestine/Israel conflict and this has undoubtedly been an influence on this complaint. The response of the newspaper has been to steer away from any comment on that particular other than to deny it had any influence on its decision to dismiss.
Apparently there has been comment both here and overseas in other media on the dismissal.
The Council does not uphold the complaint.
The Council is not aware of the exact circumstances surrounding the ending of the employer/employee contract of services between The Herald and Mr Evans, and does not, for the purposes of adjudication consider it necessary to explore that situation.
The complaint comes within the description of a third party complaint under the Council’s Complaints Procedure, set out in paragraph 13, in that the complainant could not be described as personally aggrieved. The former employee might fit that description but he has chosen not to be a complainant to the Press Council although he has voluntarily supplied to the Council an email letter on the issues which has been sent to the parties for comment and will be referred to hereafter.
The complainant wrote 2 separate letters to the editor dated the same day, namely 18 August 2003. In what seems to be the first letter written it opens as follows:
“I am writing on behalf of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC)concerning the dismissal of Malcolm Evans from the N.Z. Herald.”
The letter probably written second opens as follows:
“Under the Press Council’s Statement of Principles No.12 (Letters)
on behalf of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) I wish to formally complain about the non publication of letters in response to the dismissal of the Herald’s cartoonist Malcolm Evans.”
The Council clears out one matter immediately and it concerns the first letter. As a third party complainant Mr Wakim has no standing in regard to the “dismissal of Malcolm Evans” and he probably understands that. In Mr. Evans’s email to the Council he makes no direct complaint about his dismissal although he seems unhappy with the cessation of his employment which he attributes to the unacceptable political content of his cartoons supplied to The Herald. In that email Mr Evans says he is not taking any legal action.
The facts and reasons surrounding the dismissal are therefore firmly put to one side.
The second letter of 18 August (the substance of which is repeated in further letters) is that The Herald has not published any letters sent to the newspaper presumably by members of the public complaining about the dismissal of Mr Evans. The Council accepts that such letters were written but does not know the numbers. Furthermore the Editor-in Chief admits the receipt of critical letters but says he defends his decision not to print on the grounds that:
“It is the prerogative of an editor to decide which letters he will or will not publish.”
Mr Evans’s email supports the complainant’s argument about non-publication of critical letters over his dismissal. He quotes in support a prior decision of the Council (NZEPMU and The Herald: Case No.741 Annual Report 1999). There are some similarities with that case but it was made clear in No. 741 that the Council affirmed the prerogative of the editor but in that case found “truly exceptional circumstances” that are not present in this case.
The correspondence from the parties over the complaint is not extensive but there is little common ground. The complainant does not persist directly on the dismissal issue but instead frames the complaint as a denial by the newspaper of “freedom of speech” in not publishing letters critical of The Herald’s decision to dispense with the services of Mr Evans. The Editor-in Chief persists that the dismissal was an employment issue and the decision not to publish letters was that of the newspaper exercising its prerogative.
Stepping back and looking at this complaint, and the implications surrounding it, the Council would be unwise to enter the confrontation. There is an indisputable and controlling fact and it is that the newspaper was primarily the employer of Mr Evans and chose to end his services. The Council is not the forum to decide employment issues. No matter how the complainant seeks, for its own purposes, to frame the complaint using the Council’s procedures and Principles it is still an employer/employee relationship that is now over.
The Council has many times affirmed the prerogative of the editor to make decisions on publication of letters and does so again in this case.
Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.