T F W HARRIS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
Dr Harris complained to the Press Council about a cartoon published in the New Zealand Herald on 1 January 2007 and an article published on 2 January 2007. Each of the publications made reference to the estimated number of Iraqi deaths following the United States-led invasion of Iraq. He queried the accuracy of the newspaper’s numbers in these two instances and maintained that the newspaper should have relied instead on the research subsequently reported on by the New Zealand Herald on 3 January 2007. His complaint is not upheld.
On 1 January 2007 the New Zealand Herald published a cartoon which satirised claims of ‘victory’ by the President of the United States in the war in Iraq. The cartoonist drew President Bush’s claim to victory against the background of a scoreboard. On one side, the death of Saddam Hussein was used to represent the sole success by the United States and its allies. On the other side, the cartoonist included a representation of the loss of lives suffered in order to achieve this alleged ‘success’. The scoreboard was partially obscured and in the centre of the cartoon was a caricature of President Bush at a lectern saying “See folks….I’m winning!”.
The cartoonist appears to have used numbers on each side of the scoreboard which were random but representational. There was not, for example, any source to suggest that the numbers should be viewed literally.
On 2 January 2007 the New Zealand Herald led its World section of the newspaper with a large headline containing grim statistics about the costs of the conflict in Iraq. The headline stated reported that 3000 US soldiers had been killed in Iraq, 22,057 US troops had been wounded, 134,000 US troops were deployed, and 655,000 Iraqis were believed to have died as a direct result of the US-led invasion which had continued for 1382 days at an estimated financial cost to the United States of US$549 billion (as at the end of September 2006).
On 3 January 2007 the New Zealand Herald reported on a study by Oxford University academics, Professor Neil Johnson and Dr Sean Gourley, which challenged the findings of a US-led study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Al Mustansiriya University which had been first published in Lancet in October 2006. The Lancet study gave rise to the widely reported and relied on figure of Iraqi deaths. The New Zealand Herald article reported that Professor Johnson and Dr Gourley were critical of the methodology of the Lancet study and the validity of the extrapolations drawn from it. Their research concluded that a more accurate figure for Iraqi deaths would be in the vicinity of 218,000.
Dr Harris complained that the statistics used by the New Zealand Herald were inaccurate and, as a consequence, he alleged that the newspaper failed to “acknowledge the Coalition’s achievements”. He claimed that those errors should be rectified by the newspaper.
He complained that in three successive days the New Zealand Herald put three different figures before its readers as to the number of Iraqi deaths sustained since the occupation. He claims the cartoon referred to 10,000 Iraqi deaths (the actual text of the cartoon was, in fact, 100,000); the article on 2 January 2007 referred to 655,000 deaths and the article on 3 January referred to 218,000 deaths.
Dr Harris maintained that the newspaper had a responsibility to use statistics that were accurate or to report where they might be considered suspect. Because he alleges that the newspaper was inaccurately reporting statistics on Iraqi deaths in its publications of 1 and 2 January 2007, he sought an apology and correction.
Dr Harris sent his complaint directly to the newspaper in the first instance. Unfortunately the newspaper failed to respond until the complaint was forwarded through the Press Council processes.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor rejected Dr Harris’s claim that the Coalition forces had been successful in meeting their objectives. He maintained that President Bush (as recently as January 2007) conceded as much.
He explained that when the 2 January 2007 article was published the figures cited were the most authoritative available. He was not aware of the Oxford study until the following day and immediately publicised it. He rejects any necessity for an apology or correction.
A cartoonist uses satirical drawing to illustrate viewpoints which can amuse, challenge, provoke, entertain and even, on occasions, alienate readers. Cartoonists enjoy considerable freedom in their role.
Readers are assumed to understand that a cartoonist will not necessarily be relying on actual events. They can, for example, use a representational situation to give rise to the satirical point they strive to make. It follows that readers do not look to cartoons for ‘news’. They look to them, first and foremost, to be entertained. It is most unlikely that readers expect to take a literal view of a cartoonist’s comments.
The Press Council does not uphold Dr Harris’s complaint of inaccuracy in the cartoon. It is readily apparent to readers of the newspaper that the figures on each side of the scoreboard are representational in order to allow the cartoonist to make his central point.
It also does not uphold the complaint of inaccuracy in respect of the 2 January 2007 article. The Lancet study has been widely reported and relied upon by a huge number of news organisations. It was published in a peer reviewed and highly regarded medical journal. At the time of publication of the 2 January article the newspaper could properly rely on the study as an authoritative source. We accept the editor’s assurance that he was not aware of the Oxford study at the time of publication of 2 January article.
Once he became aware of the Oxford study, the 3 January 2007 article followed. This second article put each study under some examination and also referred to the “stir” in scientific circles which had resulted from the Oxford research. It seems likely that debate will continue in scientific circles about the validity of each study’s findings for some time yet.
The newspaper did not express any preference for either figure in its 3 January 2007 article. As the editor later observed, it is not for the newspaper to determine who is right and who is wrong.
Because the Council has not upheld the complaint of inaccuracy, it follows that we do not find that the newspaper should either correct information or apologise.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.