Tony Martin has complained that an article appearing in The Southland Times on July 20, 2011 breached Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; and headlines. The complaint is upheld on the ground that the headline did not accurately and fairly convey the substance of the article.

The Article
The article complained of was a full front page article on July 20, 2011 headed: SIS ON TRAIL OF SPIES

The opening paragraph said that the police national computer had been under scrutiny after the Christchurch earthquake because of fears Israeli agents loaded software into the system that would allow back-door access to highly sensitive intelligent files. It said that the SIS had ordered the checks as part of an urgent investigation of what one SIS officer described as suspicious activities of several groups of Israelis during and immediately after the Christchurch earthquake in February.

The article then referred to several matters which the newspaper said had led to the suspicions.

The Complaint
Mr Martin complained that the article was grossly irresponsible, full of malicious innuendoes and riddled with inaccuracy. He said it unfairly cast a cloud of mistrust and suspicion over a group of innocent Israeli backpackers as well as Israel’s internationally renowned forensic analysis team.

The editor, Fred Tulett, “connected a huge number of dots that have proven not to be connected at all”.

The statements which are complained of and the reasons for the complaints are:
a) Prime Minister John Key fielded the first of four calls that day from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Reason for Inaccuracy: The Prime Minister only took one call. Netanyahu’s staff made four attempts to reach the Prime Minister but only one of those calls got through.

b) Israeli’s Ambassador in the South Pacific, Shemi Tzur, who is based in Australia, booked flights to Christchurch, where he visited the morgue.
Reason for Inaccuracy: The Israeli Ambassador is based in Wellington.

c) In the hours after the 6.3 quake struck Israeli’s civil defence chief left Israel for Christchurch.
Reason for Inaccuracy: The civil defence chief did visit Christchurch, but 9 days later, and not from Israel but from Australia where he was visiting.

d) They (the other three tourists) made their way to Latimer Square, where Israeli officials had set up an emergency meeting point. Within 12 hours they had left New Zealand.
Reason for Inaccuracy: The Ambassador urged all Israelis in the city to leave, to get a car and drive as far away from there as possible. The three tourists wanted to get home to be with their family. They did not leave New Zealand before 26 hours after the quake, a similar time experienced by many other foreign tourists.

e) On Sunday, February 26 Mizrahi’s body was recovered from the van and taken to the morgue where, during routine identity checks, he was found to be carrying at least five passports.
Reason for Inaccuracy: The deceased only ever had two passports on him (one Hungarian and one Israeli) which is quite common amongst Jewish families who immigrated to Israel from Europe.

f) It is understood the (Search and Rescue Squad dispatched from Israeli) were confronted by armed New Zealand Police Officers and removed from the area. The confrontation is understood to have led to intense diplomatic exchanges between New Zealand and Israel.
Reason for Inaccuracy: No official Government-to-Government Search and Rescue offer came from Israel at all and therefore, no such offer was ever declined. No police confrontation occurred, the SAS – as was also suggested – was never dispatched there to deal with an unaccredited Israeli rescue squad, and no serious diplomatic exchanges resulted.

The complaint against the headline was, in Mr Martin’s complaint taken from Stuff online, misconstrued. The headline he referred to was not the headline on The Southland Times article but a headline which appeared on a very similar article in the Taranaki Daily News Online. That headline is on the basis of the information before the Council inaccurate. Although it cannot be the subject of Mr Martin’s complaint, a copy of this decision will be forwarded to the Taranaki Daily News with a suggestion that it amend its headline on the online version.

Mr Martin’s point is that the legitimacy of the article rests on whether or not the backpackers in question were spies, a very serious accusation that rightfully demands some very tangible evidence.

The complaint that the article was not fair and balanced is that beginning with the headline “SIS on Trail of Spies” the article gave a slanted description of events as they supposedly unfolded after the earthquake. The opening paragraph raised fears that the Police National Database had been compromised by Israeli agents. A report was painted that left the unsuspecting reader with little doubt that it must be true. The bulk of the report, together with detailed graphics, images, map and mug shots all screamed “guilty”. It failed to present an equally weighted counter-argument to the story. The complaint said the only balance was a short paragraph which stated that the Israeli ambassador was approached for comment and his response was “it was ‘science fiction’ that any Mossad agents had been involved”.

Newspaper’s Response
The newspaper’s response to the matters referred to above was:
a) Mr Key told a press conference in the Beehive after the earthquake that Benjamin Netanyahu had called him four times. That comment was reported both in print and on TV news clips. After the article of 20 July 2011, Mr Key clarified and expanded on his earlier comment saying only one of the four calls got through to him. The statement in the article is therefore an accurate reflection on Mr Key’s comments at the time they were published.

b) Mr Tulett accepts that the Ambassador is not based in Australia and that there was an error in the article.

c) Mr Tulett’s position is that his information is that the Israel Civil Defence Chief did leave as he stated and later flew into Christchurch.

d) The three did get on a flight to Wellington within hours of the earthquake and left so quickly that the Christchurch Coroner initially listed them amongst the missing. Exit from the city was one of the triggers in the investigation into what was considered the suspicious activities of the various groups of Israelis in Christchurch.

e) The newspaper’s position is that it has information that Mizrahi was found to have at least five passports in his possession. The editor says that he was told by the ambassador that when he was handed a parcel at the morgue containing Mizrahi’s possessions, it included multiple passports. He acknowledges that John Key initially said that he had been found with two passports then later changed that to one with another handed in by someone else.

f) The editor is confident that the information published was accurate. There was a confrontation and Mr Key has confirmed that. When asked at a press conference about an Israeli search and rescue team being escorted from the Red Zone by armed guards after being found there without permission he confirmed he was aware of an incident but “can’t confirm all of the details in the way you have presented them”. The article did not say that the SAS was involved.

In respect to the headline the editor’s position is that he considers it accurately reflects the reporting.

In summary the newspaper’s position is that it reported that various New Zealand Government agencies became deeply suspicious of what they considered to be unusual activities of various groups of Israelis in Christchurch in the aftermath of the earthquake and launched a series of investigations. The Police, the SIS and the Prime Minister have all publicly confirmed that suspicions were aroused and investigations were carried out.

The newspaper has subsequently reported that nothing was found to implicate any of the Israelis in spying. It also reported that the files on the Israelis involved had not been closed.

The Council is concerned that Mr Martin’s August 9 letter of complaint to the editor went unanswered.

The newspaper published a story based on information supplied to it by a source which Mr Tulett obviously accepted as being reliable. It was a story of considerable public interest. This Council cannot verify whether several of the statements made were inaccurate as it is not possible to confirm the newspaper’s statements or the contrary statements made by Mr Martin. The Southland Times was entitled to report the suspicions that existed.

The statement that Benjamin Netanyahu made four telephone calls to Mr Key is understandable in view of Mr Key’s own statement.

The number of passports on the deceased is still contentious and this is another matter which cannot be resolved.

The editor is confident his information on the Israeli search and rescue squad is accurate and this is another factual difference which this Council has no means of resolving.

The newspaper erred in reporting that the Israeli Ambassador resided in Canberra but the Council does not see this as a sufficient error to uphold the complaint on the grounds of inaccuracy nor does it see it as sufficiently material the statement that three Israelis left New Zealand in 12 hours when it may have been more like 26 hours.

The Council does however consider that there has been a breach of its principle that headlines should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover. The headline in this case clearly stated as a fact that there were “spies”. While the article does not make that categorical claim and the standfirst raised the question as to “what were they doing?”, a reader would draw an inference from the headline that the newspaper and the authorities believed that the Israelis were spies.

The article itself does not make a categorical claim that any of the Israelis were spies but instead refers to “fears” of activities of Israeli agents and that an urgent investigation into “suspicious activities of several groups of Israelis” was being undertaken. That there was an investigation is established and a factor which led to this investigation was, according to the editor’s source, the activities of various groups of Israelis. However, suspicions are not evidence of facts. It was a breach of the Press Council’s principle to state in a headline that there were spies which in the context of the article must have been Israeli spies, when they were only suspicions that led to an investigation. Suspicions were wrongly reported as fact in the headline.

Thus while the complaint of inaccuracy is not upheld, because there is no way of establishing whether several of the statements were in fact inaccurate, and those that were inaccurate were not materially so, the complaint is partly upheld on the grounds that the headline did not accurately and fairly convey the substance of the article. The headline slanted the reader to the view that there was substance in the suspicions and that there were Israeli spies in Christchurch.

The complaint on balance is not upheld. The allegations were put to the Israeli Ambassador who denied them. His denial was included in the article. Additionally a pointer Israeli envoy responds, in the side-bar to the article, directed readers to a full response to the allegations. Together with the short categorical denial in the article this satisfied the balance requirements.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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