KIWIS FOR BALANCED REPORTING ON THE MIDEAST AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2119

Council Meeting: JUNE 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

Introduction:
Kiwis for Balanced Reporting on the MidEast (KBRM), through the chairman Rodney Brooks, made a formal complaint to the Press Council on 7 March 2010 about a John Minto piece of 22 October 2009 published on the Stuff website. The complaint had a considerable history and the Press Council agreed to adjudicate it, despite it being technically out-of-time. The complaint is not upheld.

Background:
The 22 October opinion piece– under the headline “A Dispiriting Overreaction at the Museum” – looked at the media reaction to a group of schoolboys paying homage to the swastika during their visit to the Auckland Museum. Public opinion generally abhorred the boys’ actions, and Minto’s column was an attempt to get this behaviour into perspective. He said that young people often assume particular attitudes when in a peer pressure situation; other groups of young people (or individuals) mock Muslim leaders, terrorist leaders, and political leaders such as George W. Bush in their social activities. His argument around such activities is that they should be regarded in a balanced way, and with recognition of the proclivities of the young.

His piece then explored his views on how public opinion, and media coverage, deals with criticism of Israeli/Palestinian matters, that criticism of Israeli actions against Palestinians is often seen as anti-Semitism, and that “Some Jewish groups go so far as claiming any criticism of Israel is fuelled by anti-Semitism”.
He then went on to argue that we should be educating people, not just on Belsen and Anne Frank but about other aspects of the war and its aftermath which are largely unknown to many people.

The Complaint
It is the highlighted statement that has actioned this complaint. The complainant sought redress on this statement firstly from the columnist, then from Fairfax (the publishers of Stuff) and – unsatisfied at the response of the Stuff group on-line editor – from the Press Council.
In his formal complaint, Rodney Brooks claimed that the highlighted statement is false and defamatory. “It damages the reputation and credibility of groups who defend Israel against invalid and unfair criticisms.”
In a later response to a defence of the column, Mr Brooks said that it was clear that John Minto did not seem to understand the difference between the words some and any. If the sentence had read “Jewish groups go so far as claiming some criticism of Israel is fuelled by anti-Semitism” there would be no problem.
In essence, Mr Brooks thought that the statement as written by John Minto was a false accusation; John Minto should have been prepared to change the wording as suggested by Mr Brooks.

The Responses:
The group on-line editor of Stuff, stated that she believed the column was reasonable and balanced. Mr Brooks had complained about one sentence in the Minto column. She maintained that Mr Brooks had provided no evidence to support his view that there are no Jewish groups that believe that all criticism of Israel is fuelled by anti-Semitism.
John Minto, in his submission to the Press Council provided a number of sources which he believed supported his statement.

Discussion:
The political issues in the Middle East – and reporting of these issues and the actions that ensue – are divisive and unresolvable at this particular time. It is understandable that groups with particular perspectives are concerned that what they perceive as fairness in the reporting of events is maintained.
The Press Council believes that commentators can bring their slant to political events, and world events, and that the debate that follows may contribute to a better understanding of differences and the conflict that arises out of such differences.
A political commentator, recognized as such, whose opinions take a particular stance in what are frequently divisive viewpoints, has an important role to play.
The Press Council has considered historical and current views, presented by the complainant and John Minto, on anti-Semitism. It has reached the conclusion that there are many responsible and thoughtful intellectuals and thinkers who agree (in summary) that there is a movement trying to suggest that criticism of Israeli actions in the Middle East can be construed as anti-semitism.
Taken as a whole, the Minto piece is a commentary on a schoolboy prank which received unprecedented publicity, and a plea for balance and an end to “hypersensitive overreaction”.
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.