Case Number: 924

Council Meeting: MAY 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Professor Michael Neill of Auckland against The New Zealand Herald. The complaint concerns a headline used on a 5 December 2002 report of a speech by the Race Relations Commissioner, and later repeated as a ‘tearout’ heading on a 13 March 2003 story relating to the public commotion that followed the Commissioner’s speech. The headline said: Pakeha settlers ‘like Taleban vandals’.

Professor Neill asserted that the newspaper’s use of inverted commas could mean only that the Commissioner, Mr de Bres, had used the actual words thus enclosed. He did not accept the newspaper’s claim that it is common practice for newspapers to use quotation marks to indicate paraphrase. The complainant referred to a 2002 case (No.876) in which the Press Council observed that inverted commas “are clearly inappropriate if they do not indicate what was said, or as this is a translation, a reasonable interpretation of what was said.” The Council recommended that quotation marks be used to indicate words that can be attributed to a person, book or passage.

The deputy editor has provided the Press Council with 11 examples of the use of inverted commas, other than for direct quotation, found in recent issues of major New Zealand, United Kingdom and Australian newspapers. The practice is illustrated in another example in the (London) Independent of 25 April 2003:

Refugees are ‘escaping persecution, not poverty’
Most asylum-seekers arriving in Britain are fleeing nations gripped by civil war, persecution of minorities and brutal dictatorships, according to a report to be published next month.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a Blairite think-tank contradicts arguments made by ministers that most refugees are driven by economic factors, rather than the need to escape persecution at home.

The Press Council finds no problem with the practice here. The inverted commas are being used to highlight the main thrust of the report identified in the first two paragraphs of the article. There is no possibility of the words within quotation marks being linked to a particular person or persons, nor would readers assume that this particular formulation of a key message would be found verbatim in the report.

Given the widespread use of this practice in highly reputable newspapers the Council does not propose to issue “a more absolute ruling on the inappropriateness of using quotation marks to indicate paraphrase” as Professor Neill has requested. The Council does, however, believe that the use of quotation marks for paraphrased statements should be avoided when there is any possibility of misunderstanding through readers linking the statement to a particular person or persons. In both the 2002 case and this present one the central focus of the accompanying story was a particular person, and the Council is strongly of the opinion that newspapers should specifically rule out the practice in these circumstances, and say so in their style manuals.

The Press Council believes that the central issue in this complaint is whether the headline: Pakeha settlers ‘like Taleban vandals’ misrepresents what the Commissioner said, and so transgresses the Council’s Principles relating to accuracy and fairness. Professor Neill said that he had read and re-read Mr de Bres’s speech and could not find a single passage in which he appeared to state that Pakeha settlers were ‘like Taleban vandals.’

The relevant section of the Commissioner’s speech is this :

It is timely to recall why UNESCO and the United Nations decided to focus this year on cultural heritage. It was in response to the cultural vandalism that led to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This was an appalling example of people of one culture wielding their power to destroy a site that was special to people of another. The world was outraged.

But while we rightfully shake our heads in incomprehension and condemnation, the destruction of the Buddhas also challenges us to think of our own country and to examine our own record.

The colonisation of New Zealand was a sorry litany of cultural vandalism. Governments, egged on by land-hungry settlers, rode roughshod over Maori cultural relationships with their environment, threw some of their most visionary and peaceful cultural leaders and elders into gaol without trial, belittled their culture and actively discouraged the use of their language. This cultural vandalism was accompanied by environmental vandalism, and vast expanses of New Zealand’s indigenous ecosystems were unnecessarily destroyed.

In his final submission supporting his allegation that the headline, by coupling unlike situations, had seriously misrepresented what Mr de Bres had said Professor Neill repeated an analogy he had drawn earlier: “To say that jokes at the expense of Jews and the extermination of millions of Jewish people in the death camps are both expressions of anti-semitism is plainly not to say that retailers of such jokes are in any significant sense “like Nazi mass-murderers” ­ though to remember the brutality of the latter might cause one to reflect on the social destructiveness of the former. I understood Mr de Bres to have been inviting precisely this kind of reflection on some of the more unattractive aspects of our own colonial past.”

The deputy editor responded by saying that “This analogy is transparently false because Mr de Bres was not referring to two such dissimilar acts as the commission of a monstrous crime on the one hand and the telling of jokes on the other. He did not say that the cultural vandalism of the Taleban makes us reflect on anti-Maori jokes told by the Pakeha settlers in New Zealand because they are both examples of intolerance. Rather, he was comparing two similar acts. He said the cultural vandalism of the Taleban … makes us reflect on the cultural vandalism of the Pakeha settlers…”

The Press Council did not come to a unanimous decision on the complaint. A majority of members did not accept Professor Neill’s view that the two elements in the comparison Mr de Bres made had been assigned such different orders of magnitude and gravity as to make invalid the newspaper’s linking of them in its headline. They considered that although the particular actions in the two cultures differ, the defining description is the same pungent and condemnatory phrase: “cultural vandalism.” The majority considered that the headline: Pakeha settlers ‘like Taleban vandals’ is justifiable as a compressed expression of the core idea in the paragraphs cited above from Mr de Bres’s speech : Like the Taleban, Pakeha in New Zealand practised cultural vandalism.

Mr de Bres himself recently commented to the editor that his remarks had referred primarily to the actions of governments, not settlers, but the conjunction in his speech of the words “colonisation” and “egged on by land-hungry settlers” supports the headline’s use of the word “settlers” as part of its compact signposting of what follows in the 5 December report.

A small minority of members considered that the headline was inaccurate, in that Mr de Bres had simply been using the particular occasion to refer to New Zealand experience and was not pointing to similarities in what happened in the two cultures.

By a majority decision, the complaint is not upheld.

Miss Audrey Young and Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.