TOM VAN MEURS AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2960

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

Overview

1. On 9 September 2020, The Press under the heading Double Standards published a letter that had been sent to it by the complainant, Tom Van Meurs. It is not a long letter and we set it out in full:

Assange Hearing

This week the extradition hearing of Julian Assange resumes and is expected to last several weeks. The outcome will be a forgone conclusion. Assange, publisher and editor of Wikileaks, is the first person to be tried under the Espionage Act, dating from World War I, for publishing information alleging American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange can expect a 177-year jail sentence.

The perverse use of this archaic Act has put a free press at stage and is used to quiet any future dissent. It is reminiscent of the show trials in Nazi Germany and the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. The extradition hearing is a horrific and hitherto unprecedented travesty of British justice.

2. The letter had been changed by The Press from the original letter sent by Mr Van Meurs. That original letter in the third sentence appears to have read: “Assange, publisher and editor of Wikileaks, is the first person to be tried under the Espionage Act, dating from World War I, for publishing American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Complaint

3. Mr Van Meurs asserts that the change made by The Press distorted the meaning of the letter. It was misleading “as it conveys the impression that the reported incident might not have taken place”.The Press had the option of rejecting the letter, but should not have tampered with its text.

4. He states that the war crimes referred to were “a well-documented fact” and could not be interpreted as an allegation. He provides what he says is video evidence of the crime. The war crime was the “cold blooded murder of civilians and two Reuters reporters in the streets of Baghdad”.

5. He points to what he says were statements about the Christchurch Mosque shootings, where the letters called those crimes “murder”.

The Response

6. The Press asserts that it is standard practice to use the word “alleged” for any crime which has not resulted in a conviction, regardless of how certain it appears to be that the crime was committed. It gives examples of how the mosque shooter, prior to his conviction, was referred to in letters as the “alleged” gunman.The Press is not trying to cover up inconvenient news.

7. The Press does not dispute that the attack by US forces in which two journalists were killed did occur. However, it has not been prosecuted as a war crime. While allegations that it was a war crime have been made, others have defended the US actions claiming the journalists were in the company of armed insurgents and their cameras were easily mistaken for weapons.

8. The Press asserted that the media commonly uses words such as “allegedly” and “suspected” when referring to those who may be responsible for a crime. Such words are neutral and do not assume that a crime has or has not been committed by that person.

The Decision

9. A publisher faced with a letter stating that a person or entity has committed a serious crime is in a difficult position. If the letter is published saying, for instance, “X murdered Y” prior to conviction, a great injustice may be done to X if X is later found not to be guilty of the crime. The fact that it is a letter and therefore an expression of opinion, does not assuage the damage that the bald assertion of the committal of a crime can do. When it is a letter to the editor, the person or entity accused of such a crime has no opportunity to answer that accusation, except in a later publication. This is, on any objective analysis, unfair to the person or entity accused.

10. The Press had the option of not publishing the letter. That might be expected if the thrust of the letter was changed by the insertion.

11. To evaluate this, the insertion of the word “alleged” must be examined in the context of the letter as a whole. The letter appears to be about the use of the Espionage Act by Authorities to prosecute Julian Assange. Mr Van Meurs objects in strong terms to that Act being used to “quiet any future dissent”, and that its use is reminiscent of the show trials in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and in the Stalin era. This is the thrust of the letter. The background which led to the show trial is the fact that Mr Assange was publishing information about the actions of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

12. Seen in this light, the subject matter of Mr Assange’s publications is a background matter and peripheral to the thrust of the letter. The insertion of the word “alleged” did not change the central point Mr Van Meurs wished to make, which was that Mr Assange was quite wrongly being prosecuted by the US for political motives.

13. While The Press might have simply refused to publish the letter due to the letter writer’s assumption of guilt about the alleged crime, a letter-writer in the position of Mr Van Meurs might well be justly aggrieved at being deprived of publication just because the insertion of a word was needed to qualify such a background matter. Equally, it would be impractical for editors before publication to go back to a letter-writer to seek permission to insert qualifying words. Editors have to make a judgment.

14. In all the circumstances, we do not consider that it was impermissible forThe Press to have inserted the word “alleged”. The basis reason for doing so, that persons or entities should not be stated to have committed crimes unless this has been proven in Court, was reasonable. It would not be reasonable to insert a word or words that changed the basic meaning of a letter, but we do not think that is the case here, for the reasons we have outlined. While any amendments to the substance of a letter should be made with great caution by editors, we do not think that this change crossed the line.

Result

The complaint is not upheld.

Liz Brown dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.