KIWIS FOR BALANCED REPORTING ON THE MIDEAST AGAINST THE PRESS
Case Number: 2107
Council Meeting: MARCH 2010
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: The Press
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Rodney Brooks, on behalf of Kiwis for Balanced Reporting on the Mid East against The Press about letters to the editor which were claimed to contain false and defamatory charges against Israel.
Mr Brooks and the organization known as Kiwis for Balanced Reporting on the Mideast (KBRM) argued that a newspaper is obliged to rebut defamatory or false charges even when such charges are in a published letter to the editor or a cartoon.
Mr Brooks and KBRM required The Press be instructed by the Press Council to allow for rebuttals if readers felt letters contained false and defamatory charges.
Mr Brooks and KBRM using an illustrative selection of four letters to the editor published between April and October 2009, claimed that false and defamatory attacks were made against Israel and KBRM. One letter was published outside of the Press Council’s three month time limit for complaint and was therefore included as background rather than part of the complaint.
Similarly, a cartoon drawn by Moreu and published on May 21, that was the subject of considerable correspondence was provided in evidence as illustrative rather than central to the complaint, as it too had been published outside the time limit.
Mr Brooks and KBRM argue The Press should publish corrections when published information is materially incorrect even in letters and, in the process of selecting letters for publication, it should be guided by fairness, balance and public interest.
The substance of the alleged inaccuracies and defamatory passages includes:
a) The inaccurate description of the Iranian president’s desire to bring “Death to Israel” as “tragic, baseless, caricaturing propaganda”
b) An inaccurate statement that Israel’s claim to land came “only from the Bible”
c) The inaccurate claim that Israelis wish to drive Palestinians from their homes
d) The false accusation that that Israel’s behaviour in the Gaza strip equated to that of the Nazis in Germany
e) An egregious libel in charging Israel with genocide
Mr Brooks and KBRM argue The Press refused to allow rebuttals to false charges yet published two letters from a correspondent who made further false charges against Israel; that Israel had destroyed a neighbouring country and that KBRM was producing “Orwellian propaganda”.
The newspaper agreed that a principle of fairness did exist. It required a newspaper to correct errors in its own factual reporting and that where contestable statements of fact were made by writers of letters to the editor, a fair opportunity should be given to those with opposing views.
Considerable space on the letters page had been devoted to the issue of the Middle East in 2009 with 111 letters published with approximately equal representation of pro and anti Israel factions including eight from Mr Brooks.
The newspaper argued this demonstrated that over time readers’ views were fairly reflected in the selection of letters for publication.
The newspaper argued that statements of fact cited by Mr Brooks and KBRM were not plain statements of fact with the exception of one – relating to access of journalists to enter the West Bank.
The Press wanted a letters page with a vibrant and diverse range of opinions and endeavoured to be fair and reasonable however it does not fact-check every letter. The editor argued that disputes over fact can be at the very heart of an effective letters page and cited, as an example, the strongly opposing range of views published about the David Bain case.
Letters to the editor are selected and edited for publication at the prerogative of the editor, normally through a letters’ editor.
The range of views expressed and information contained in the letters, sometimes purporting to be fact, does not represent an official newspaper view but is something of a snapshot of what readers are thinking about an issue of the day.
The reader views may not always withstand rigorous intellectual assessment but that is, of itself, interesting in identifying where public opinion lies.
A newspaper serves its readers when published letters illustrate a wide range of opinion, when it does not allow its letters page to become a mouth-piece for one side of an argument and when it does not allow one group to intimidate, even by constant complaint, the views of others.
The Press has maintained this standard and has engaged in regular discussion with Mr Brooks and KBRM. During the course of this complaint, further letters from Mr Brook were published.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.