Case Number: 1017 JULIE WEBB-PULLMAN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Council Meeting MAY 2005
Julie Webb-Pullman of Wellington has raised a series of complaints to the Press Council arising from two articles published in the Lifestyle and Leisure section of The New Zealand Herald on 29 September and 30 November 2004 and a film review published on 18 December. All were by Peter Calder and touched on aspects of life in Cuba. The Cuban Ambassador to New Zealand H E Miguel Ramirez also took issue on several points in a letter to the Deputy Editor, but did not complain to the Press Council. His letter was forwarded to the Council by Ms Webb-Pullman but is not discussed in this adjudication.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.
The articles in question were opinion pieces in that all, including the film review, were published under the by-line of Mr Calder, whom The Herald’s Deputy Editor described as a “professional journalist who has written for this newspaper for many years”. Ms Webb-Pullman’s extended complaints centre on questions of accuracy, fairness and balance and confusion of facts and opinion. She contends that Mr Calder’s negative comments about Cuba, the everyday life of the people and the record of the regime, in the 30 November article, were factually incorrect. She claims too to have been misrepresented in the piece dated 29 September. She also accused the journalist of subterfuge, in terms of the Press Council’s Principle no. 9 to the effect that editors should not sanction misrepresentation, deceit or subterfuge to obtain information, and breach of privacy (principle no 3.) Moreover she strongly contested Mr Calder’s observations about the deeds of Che Guevara, the central character in the film, The Motor Cycle Diaries, in his 18 December review
Ms Webb-Pullman has taken the trouble to mount a vigorous and voluminous defence of her strongly-held points of view. She has had experience of living in Cuba - for about twelve months over a period of four years. She has studied Cuban politics and the political theories espoused by leading figures in the Cuban revolution. She claims to speak Spanish well enough for purposes of day to day exchange. She obviously knows much about contemporary life in Cuba and has acquaintances there.
Mr Calder, would not claim any such degree of engagement in Cuban affairs. He is reported by his Deputy Editor, nevertheless, to speak “impeccable” Spanish. He was in Cuba for a period of about a week on a trip covered in part by LAN, the Chilean airline.
Two of the articles in question were contributions to the Lifestyle and Leisure section of the paper: one (29 September) mainly reported a season of Cuban film in Auckland; the other (30 November) was a travel piece presenting far from unsympathetic personal impressions of Havana. The 18 December film review was just that; one reviewer’s opinion about a movie. These were not theses on the Cuban revolution.
On the question of confusion of opinion and fact, the Press Council has consistently upheld editors who publish opinion pieces which may be deliberately provocative– even offensive – to some. The Council cannot say it often enough: a good newspaper is a forum for the exchange of ideas. It is not – at least in a free society – a vehicle for the transmission of a preconceived version of the truth. The idea is still as John Milton expressed it nearly four hundred years ago to “let her (Truth) and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter.”
Equally the Press Council is not about to sit in judgement on what is or is not factual in impressionistic commentary about a place and a situation so saturated in controversy and ideological dispute as Cuba. All coverage, where there are so many opinions about the rights and wrongs, is useful. One person’s facts are another’s heresy. Only through debate can readers make up their own minds. In this regard, the Press Council commends The New Zealand Herald for providing space to two other complainants about this series of articles. On the Perspectives page on 11 January 2005, the Cuban Ambassador and a representative of the Auckland and Hamilton Cuba Friendship Societies were given prominence for their points of view. Ms Webb-Pullman was offered the same opportunity but preferred to complain to the Press Council.
In the article of 29 September about the Cuban film season in New Zealand and the counterpart New Zealand season in Cuba, Mr Calder took Ms Webb-Pullman to task for contending that New Zealand and Cuba “have much in common”. Ms Webb-Pullman complained that this phrase misrepresents her views. She did not use it. The Press Council notes however that in the flyer for the Si! Cuba! season she, as the organiser, is quoted as making several assertions about supposed parallels between the situations of the two countries which can only be interpreted as things “in common”.
Ms Webb-Pullman contended that Mr Calder had been guilty of “subterfuge” in travelling to Cuba under a ‘tourist’ as opposed to a ‘journalist’ visa. Plainly, Mr Calder travelled as a tourist and wrote an informed travel piece published as such in the Lifestyle and Leisure section (30 November). The issue of ‘privacy’ was raised by Ms Webb-Pullman because the Deputy Editor replied to her complaint and that of the Cuban Ambassador in the one letter. There is an issue of etiquette and courtesy here, of which the Deputy Editor might have been more mindful, but which is outside the Council’s jurisdiction.
Ms Webb-Pullman asked that The Herald publish corrections of various errors of fact she had detected. The newspaper accepted that it was in error in two instances only, and published corrections in an appropriate place on the Perspectives page on 11 January. As for the numerous other ‘errors’ traversed by the complainant, it is clear that the two sides to this argument have different views as to what was fact and what was opinion in the articles in question. The newspaper is entitled to its point of view and Ms Webb-Pullman to hers. But there is no cause for the newspaper to ‘correct’ the views of its correspondent. For the Press Council to require it to do so would be censorship.
Ms Webb-Pullman’s complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Lynn Scott, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Keith Lees, Terry Snow and Denis McLean. John Gardner of the New Zealand Herald did not take part in the consideration.