AIR NEW ZEALAND AGAINST INVESTIGATE MAGAZINE

Case Number: 2023

Council Meeting: APRIL 2008

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Investigate Magazine

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Photographs
Accuracy
Misleading

The Press Council has upheld complaints by Air New Zealand about an article in the September 2007 issue of Investigate magazine headlined on the cover: Exclusive. Air NZ’s secret flights. Why our state-owned airline is flying US troops into war.
The Press Council upheld complaints that the cover headline and some details in the article were inaccurate; that the article lacked fairness and that the cover montage of an armed soldier, a queue of people and the familiar Koru on the tail of an Air New Zealand jet was misleading and inaccurate.
Another complaint relating to comments within the article was not upheld.

Background

Investigate magazine’s major story in its September issue was headed Mission Impossible: Air New Zealand’s cloak and dagger flights rattle staff. A standfirst reported: “New Zealand’s state-owned airline has been going where angels fear to tread, shipping Australian combat troops up to the Iraqi border under fighter-jet escort, and flying US marines between military bases on top secret flights.”
The magazine cover heading referred to flights involving US troops and a promotional piece in the index referred to both US and Australian combat troops being shipped to the Iraqi border in Air New Zealand 767s.
The article itself referred to “regular secret flight missions to the Middle East and elsewhere carrying US and Australian combat troops.”
More specifically, it referred to one such flight to Kuwait carrying Australian soldiers. An anonymous source was quoted as saying the jet was recognisable as one from Air New Zealand through the koru on the tail, that for the last part of the journey it was escorted by US jet fighters and that staff were sworn to secrecy.
The article also quoted another source as saying that on July 29, an Air New Zealand 767 was contracted to fly US marines from an exercise in Darwin to Hiroshima in Japan, which it said was beside a large marine base at Iwakuni. Investigate reported it confirmed the flight itself, even though it said the plane’s destination was not disclosed on official records, and its arrival at Hiroshima, which is not on Air NZ’s regular landing schedule, and where similarly there was no record of where the plane had come from.
The details filled about one and a-half columns of an eight page-article about Air New Zealand. Most of the article detailed alleged failings of management, recruitment, training and security by Air New Zealand. These aspects were not part of Air New Zealand’s complaint to the Press Council.
The article included responses from Air New Zealand in connection with parts of the article not subject to complaint, but not to the material complained of. Instead, a sentence at the end of the article said: “The airline’s response to the military flights will be posted on the magazine’s website.”
The editors of Investigate also editorialised on the flights and said they thought the use of a branded New Zealand airliner was a mistake. “The koru on the tail is distinctive enough to raise eyebrows in the Middle East, especially if it is under fighter escort.”
On September 10, through its solicitors, Air New Zealand wrote to Investigate stating its concerns about the cover picture, the cover heading, the claim that the Kuwait flight had a fighter escort, the claim that the airline was flying US marines between military bases on “top-secret flights” and that staff had been sworn to secrecy.
The letter, which also raised other concerns, was published in the November issue of the magazine with a response from the editor and writer of the article, Ian Wishart.
Inter alia, in his response, the editor said the magazine accepted Air New Zealand’s assurance that an instruction for staff not to talk about the flight had not emanated from head office. But there was no wide public awareness of the flights.
If the flight crew was mistaken about the fighter jets, the magazine accepted Air New Zealand’s assurance on the matter, although it was hardly a substantive issue, and the magazine accepted US troops were not being flown to war zones and withdrew the allegation and apologised. The response continued: “As for the rest, get over it . . . We stand by our opinion that flights to the Middle East in airline colours were not the smartest PR stunt in the book, and MFAT is on record as saying the reason it didn’t have a problem with the proposed flights was because the airline had initially promised to carry them out in non-liveried aircraft.”

The Complaint

The airline’s complaint to the Press Council, dated December 20, 2007, covered nearly identical ground to the letter published in the magazine. Specifically, the complaints were:
The magazine cover depicted a photograph of a soldier guarding an Air New Zealand plane. The photograph was a fabrication and designed to create a sensational and false impression. Although there was a small reference inside the cover to the fact the picture was a montage, there was no prominent indication the image had been manipulated.
The cover heading, Air NZ’s secret flights – why our state-owned airline is flying US troops into war, was inaccurate. Air New Zealand had not conducted any secret flights or flown US military personnel into a war zone.
The editorial and article said that Air New Zealand flights had been under fighter escort and this was untrue.
The standfirst that Air New Zealand was flying US marines between military bases on top secret flights was untrue. The airline had only ever carried US defence personnel on commercial routes, under commercial air traffic control and out of commercial airports.
No Air New Zealand staff had been sworn to secrecy.
The airline also complained about references in both the editorial and article which it said inferred Air New Zealand had engaged in activity that could endanger the safety of other Air New Zealand flights and of New Zealanders generally by using a branded airliner. Those inferences were untrue and were based on incorrect statements.
Air New Zealand said the article was also unfair and unbalanced because the magazine failed to make any genuine attempt to verify the allegations with Air New Zealand before publication.
Investigate had contacted the airline by email on August 14 asking: “Why has Air New Zealand been using its liveried passenger aircraft to ship US and Australian troops involved in deployments to the Middle East and elsewhere? Was authorisation obtained from MFAT or Civil Aviation for these flights?”
Air New Zealand said the questions were sent to the airline two days before the magazine was available in stores and one day before a summary appeared on the magazine’s website. At that late stage, any response from Air New Zealand could have had no effect on the article. It was not given a genuine opportunity to respond to the questions.

The Magazine’s Response

In his response to the Press Council, the editor said montages, particularly for covers, were “de rigueur” in magazine and television graphics, and this one was acknowledged in the usual way.
Investigate was informed the flight crew to Kuwait had been instructed not to talk about the flights, that US jets had appeared to escort the flight at one point and that staff were concerned a government-owned airline was carrying combat troops to a zone of war that the government was opposed to.
Investigate knew of this flight before any other media, and it was under the clear impression the flight was secret because of the sensitivity surrounding it.
During the latter course of its investigation, another contact revealed the troop flight from Darwin to Hiroshima which the magazine was able to confirm. The fact that no flight plan was filed with the control tower gave the further impression the flight was secret.
The editor said the cover sub-heading, “Why our state-owned airline is flying US troops into war,” was supposed to have read “coalition” but the correction was overlooked because of the late arrival of another article. However, the magazine considered Air New Zealand’s complaint as semantic, not substantial. “We apologized for the flow-on implication that US troops had been flown into warzones, precisely because we had cocked up on the cover line. If it had read Coalition or Aussie troops, however, the sting would have remained the same.”
The editor said the magazine accepted Air New Zealand’s assurances, with qualifications, about the secrecy and jet-fighter claims only because “challenging them would require us to burn sources whose information overall proved remarkably accurate.”
The magazine’s criticism about the failure to use an unmarked aircraft had been foreshadowed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which had given approval on the understanding that Air New Zealand would not be using its own livery.
As for not giving the airline the opportunity to comment on the troop-carrying story before publication, the editor said the airline had briefed government officials of the Investigate story as soon as its questions were sent in, and it also prepared and released its own media statements without reference to the Investigate story.
“After our dealings with Air New Zealand’s less than honest behaviour with the media over the past eight years, we had no intention of blowing our major story by giving the airline, and the government, effectively 10 days’ advance warning of what we were publishing. Because the magazine operates a high-traffic news website, we saw no journalistic problem in incorporating Air New Zealand’s response there, and in fact we did so.”
The editor believed the feature at the centre of the complaint was fair and balanced. The airline’s full response to the military flights was available on the website.

Further Debate

The airline’s solicitor responded the continued assertions about the fighter escort did not relieve the magazine of its responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure the information published was accurate. The airline did not accept the editor’s reasons for failing to seek confirmation from Air New Zealand. “The desire to ambush Air New Zealand with an article should not override the magazine’s obligation to provide fair, accurate and balanced reporting.”
Mr Wishart said it was inherently unjust for the airline to single out Investigate’s printed monthly magazine and hold it to the urgency standards of a daily newspaper or radio station while ignoring the significant exposure the magazine provided Air New Zealand’s views online where it could compete with daily media.
The editor said that from memory, he thought the military portion of the cover was taken at Darwin and was no more a fabrication than Air New Zealand’s computer-generated publicity shots of airliners in the stratosphere or other such marketing elements. “The point of the cover is to lead people to the story inside.”

Discussion

The details in the magazine’s article about the flights, particularly the one to Kuwait, became a major public issue. The story was of significant public interest.
Montages are a common form for magazine covers, and these are not usually acknowledged on the cover itself but inside the magazine. Investigate did acknowledge it was a montage inside the cover with the words “Cover montage/DEFENSELINK/News.” The Press Council notes Defenselink is the official website of the United States Department of Defense and the kit of the soldier looks more like that of the US than Australia.
The Press Council has debated in the past (Case 1060) the desirability of accuracy in cover headlines. That case related to Woman’s Day, a magazine which deals in gossip and rumour which may or may not be true. The Press Council upheld a complaint of inaccuracy by a majority.
In this instance, accuracy was required. Moreover, there is a question around the accuracy of the montage itself. It is designed to tell a story and readers are unaware that what they are seeing is not a genuine photograph.
The Press Council notes the practice of altering photographs has caused considerable anguish in the past. Last year, the American Journalism Review, in an article on picture doctoring, said that “with readily accessible, relatively inexpensive imaging tools and a low learning curve, the axiom ‘seeing is believing’ never has been more at risk.”
It quoted John Long, chairman of the ethics and standards committee of the US National Press Photographers’ Association as saying, "The public is losing faith in us. Without credibility, we have nothing; we cannot survive." The Investigate cover photograph gives a clear impression of recording an actual event.
Similarly, claims within the article about US fighter escorts, top-secret flights and staff sworn to secrecy needed to be solidly based.
The editor has been unable to do that. In the larger scale of the story itself, those incorrect details might be the sauce to the main dish but they still spoil the taste. It has been said that a good story is only as good as its dumbest mistake.
The editor conceded and apologised for one mistake, and sought to minimise others. Those mistakes, however, would likely have been amended or at least challenged had the magazine referred its story to the airline. The editor’s explanation for not doing so reveals a regrettable lack of faith in Air New Zealand that serves neither journalism nor the airline well. Good journalism demands fairness and the editor’s allegation that taking such a step would have led to his scoop effectively being sabotaged is disturbing.
This tension between journalists and organisations is bound to grow as organisations seek to control the way information is released and journalists withhold information to the last minute to minimise the possibility of that happening.
But is it acceptable to decide an organisation should not have the opportunity to respond properly in time for publication, and that questions can be put to the organisation just before publication and any response is put up on the internet as soon as possible after publication? That, in effect, is what happened in this case, even with the “pointer” to the website for the response.
The Press Council does not believe so. Investigate cites a distrust of Air New Zealand, based on previous dealings, but the magazine still had an obligation to give the airline an opportunity to respond for publication, if only to give its readers as full an account as possible.
The email bearing two questions should have been more fully detailed and contained a deadline. Further, a direct phone call would seem more appropriate on such an urgent matter.
Investigate’s approach indicates it did not want to consider another side of the story or to seek to provide as much information as possible at time of publication. It is not unreasonable that an organisation, believing it was about to be “ambushed,” would want to minimise any fallout and take pro-active steps.
The Press Council does not believe it is sufficient to say a response will be on a website following publication without first making a reasonable attempt to get a response in time for publication.
When the magazine learned of the flights, they had not been made public. On the information available, the Press Council believes it is a stretch to say they were secret or top-secret. Indeed, the magazine was able to confirm the Darwin-Hiroshima flight quite quickly, although it is reasonable to surmise these were facts the airline did not want made public.
The Press Council acknowledges that this was an article about a matter of considerable public importance. Investigate had a good story worth telling. But in its reporting, Investigate was guilty of a careless error, for which it has apologised. It was also unfair in that it should have more rigorously sought a response from the airline.

Conclusion

Montages or a grouping of composite pictures are a common means of making magazine covers eye-catching. But they should not contain unnecessarily misleading material. In this instance, the cover was narrative in that it appeared to be a photograph of a US soldier alongside an Air New Zealand jet, and its purpose was to illustrate a story about the airline flying US troops into war, a story that was untrue. It was misleading and inaccurate. This complaint is upheld.
On balance, after considering all aspects carefully, the Press Council also upholds the complaint of inaccuracy relating to claims of the fighter jet escort; the level of secrecy surrounding the flights; and that staff had been sworn to secrecy. Although concessions regarding the accuracy were made by the editor in his November response to the published Air New Zealand letter, the information should have been subjected to verification checks before publication.
On the issue of questioning whether Air New Zealand was wise to use a liveried aircraft, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint. This was fair comment and the magazine was entitled to make it.
But it upholds the complaint of lack of fairness. Investigate may have distrusted the airline, but there were ways the magazine could have tried to get a response in time for publication while protecting its exclusive story.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, John Gardner, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.