The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Siobhan Larkin alleging a New Zealand Herald headline and article were sensationalist and likely to incite racism.

The article complained of centred on comments by United States congressman Saxby Chambliss that New Zealand was one of 64 countries where terrorist cells linked to identified terrorist Osama bin Laden could be active.

Headlined, “America warns of NZ terror links: the congressman leading an inquiry into the terror attacks on the US says New Zealand is one of the countries that could be harbouring bin Laden supporters”, it was written on September 25, 2001, two weeks after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Ms Larkin has objected to the headline, saying it came “close to inciting” racial prejudice, and to article content reporting that New Zealand was one of the countries named by the congressman. She said the headline seemed to be suggesting that the threat was immediate and immense. Not only was this sensationalist but exposed recently arrived Afghani refugees to possible racist behaviour.

In response, Herald deputy editor David Hastings denies any sensationalism, saying it was standard journalistic practice to highlight the local element of a story, in this case the naming of possible New Zealand terrorist links above other countries also listed.

He rejects an assertion that the actual risks were insignificant, saying it was hard to imagine how anyone could consider them so in the aftermath of September 11. He also found it hard to understand how the article could incite racism: a group of coincidentally arriving Afghani refugees into New Zealand were well-known to be fleeing the brutal regime that had given bin Laden succour.

Ms Larkin’s concerns are understandable in the context of many examples of mindless post-September 11 racist actions in the United States, and a few in New Zealand. But it is necessary to also be mindful of the extent of the perceived threat around the world in the early days after the attacks.

The headline “America warns of NZ terror links” is mildly ambiguous, able to be read as a warning of actual links, or of the danger of links. But the content of the article is clear and hardly sensationalist in the context of the times. Rightly or wrongly, New Zealand was on the United States list of places where terrorist cells could be active.

Nor can the article, concentrated on concerns about the possible links, be deemed racist or likely to incite racism. The mindlessness of some reactions in the international community to the month’s events was appalling and regrettable. But a newspaper cannot be expected to stop reporting what it sees as important on the off chance its message will be misinterpreted. The complaint is therefore not upheld.

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


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