KIWIS FOR BALANCED REPORTING ON THE MIDEASTAGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2057

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Introduction
Kiwis for Balanced Reporting on the Mideast complains that the Otago Daily Times, in reporting events involving Israel, fails Press Council standards of accuracy, fairness and balance. KBRM, according to its website, represents a group of “Kiwis and Kiwi friends” set up to redress “anti-Israel bias”. Its “mission” is to rate newspapers’ balance; to inform editors of the “missing side” of stories; to notify violations of standards; and to appeal “egregious cases to authorities such as the New Zealand Press Council.
The complaints, running over several pages, allege of the ODT: bias in editorials and opinion pieces; disparate space and treatment given to anti-Israeli sides in letters to the editor; and unequal coverage in news’ stories. All the news stories cited are sourced through international wire agencies, five via Thomson Reuters and a sixth via the Associated Press.
The complaints are not upheld.

The complaints
KBRM chairman Rodney Brooks says a pattern is clear in the ODT cover of giving greater exposure to negative news and opinion about Israel, and less to negative news and opinion about Palestinians.
Editorial: Mr Brooks says a May 22 editorial about President Bush’s recent push for peace unfairly emphasised Israel’s settlement policies and cutting off of fuel as obstacles to peace, while only calling on Arabs to move past old resentments – “a ridiculous euphemism for trying to destroy Israel”. A sentence, “While Israel applies a stranglehold on Gaza … Hamas retaliates with arbitrary and deadly rocket attacks…” failed to convey Hamas’s intention to destroy Israel, or that Israel’s actions against Gaza were designed to thwart such attacks.
A photograph of an Israeli tank accompanying a June 30 opinion piece, co-written by Mr Brooks, “reinforced the image of Israel as aggressor”.
Letters: He says two letters attacking Israel (July 5 and July 7) were allowed to run substantially over newspaper word limits, while four pro-Israel letters (May 29, June 23, July 10, and July 16), were either abridged or had important words deleted. One of these (July 23) came with an editor’s rebuttal that “missed the point” and contained an inaccuracy – that Israel had “seized” the West Bank”.
News: The complaint identifies six news items (June 16, June 17, July 31, July 1, July 4, and July 24). The first three, comprising criticism of Israel’s resettlement practices, were given prominence; the rest, reporting Palestinian attacks, were given limited exposure, and key details of Palestinian brutalities omitted.
The complaint says: “the difference in space, headlines, placement and even font between reports of Israel building houses and descriptions of Palestinian attacks that killed and wounded people is striking”. In a letter to Mr Kirkness, Mr Brooks adds the paper could improve its balance by using AP instead of Thomson Reuters, “which is blatantly pro-Palestinian in its reporting”.

The Newspaper’s Response
Mr Kirkness rebuts the assertion the newspaper has violated principles of fairness, balance or accuracy. “[The assertion] implies I have a personal agenda to present news provided by our international services in a deliberately misleading manner for my own agenda. I reject that assertion absolutely.”
The ODT published news from the Middle East as it happened. “It does not and could not conduct a day to day tally of items or paragraphs based on subjective opinion about what is supposedly supportive of one ‘side’ and negative to another.”
The ODT received many more letters than it had space for. With guidelines clearly set out on the letters’ page, the paper made it clear that decisions about selection and length rested with the editor.
Mr Brooks had been given “more than a fair go” with regards to publication of his letters and his opinion piece, though he had complained about the photograph attached to the latter. “I would suggest Mr Brooks’ perceptions that the ODT has violated principles of fairness, accuracy and balance with regards to Israel are based on his world view, rather than on mine.”

Discussion
Editorial: An editorial is – and is widely understood to be – an opinion of the newspaper. Although subject to basic rules of accuracy, it has leeway to take strong stances – even sides – on issues of public interest. In an editorial on President Bush’s recent push for peace, arguing that, as a first step, Israel should desist from its settlement policies and step back from a stranglehold on Gaza, is a valid view for a newspaper to assert. Omitting a list of action to be taken by the other side does not constitute lack of balance in this context.
The picture of an Israeli tank accompanying an opinion piece supportive of Israel is effectively neutral. Depending on personal stance, it could be seen as supporting either side.
Letters: The Press Council has consistently ruled that the publication and abridgement of letters is the prerogative of editors. On this, it should be noted that the two “anti-Israel” letters cited by Mr Brooks were responses to the substantial column space given him and co-author David Zwartz. The suggestion key words were deliberately omitted from pro-Israel letters – presumably as indication of newspaper bias - is countered by the newspaper as being routine editing. A newspaper needs to be careful in its abridging, that the substance and accuracy of a letter is not lost. But in the letters cited, it is not evident that meaning has been compromised.
The editor’s rebuttal to KBRM’s June 23 letter, written in response to its criticism of the paper, was something he was entitled to do. Saying the land referred to was part of the West Bank “seized” by the Israeli army is a valid editorial judgement.
News: The ODT, like every other New Zealand paper, is reliant for its overseas news on material sent by agencies, with Thomson Reuters perhaps the most common conduit. The suggestion that Thomson Reuters is deliberately biased is beyond the scope of this council to measure. No evidence of bias lies before it. Mr Kirkness is undoubtedly correct, however, in his observation that his paper’s overseas copy is chosen in response to events that happen on a given day, without thought given to balance “tallies”. It would be hard for his paper to function otherwise.

Conclusion
Covering overseas conflicts poses big difficulties for New Zealand’s relatively small news media. It is understandable that a local newspaper should rely for its cover on respected news agencies such as Thomson Reuters.
In regards to editorials, the ODT has the right to take a stance on any controversial issue it wishes: there is no indication here of inaccuracy. Similarly, in regards to letters to the editor, while the newspaper should be enjoined to be alert to the potential effect of abridgements on meaning, no unfairness or lack of balance has been here ascertained.
For the reasons given above, the complaints are not upheld.

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