PETER BOLOT AGAINST WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 2597

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Discrimination

Overview

[1] Readers David Cumin and Peter Bolot have separately complained about a column published May 30 in theWanganui Chronicle and on the NZ Herald website. In the newspaper it was headlined ‘Trump seals unholy alliance’ and on the internet, ‘Iran the bogeyman as arms dealers hold court’. The similarities of the complaints mean they can be dealt with together.

[2] The column was written by a regular Chronicle columnist, Fred Frederikse, who describes himself as a “self-directed student of geography and traveller”. It covers the nascent relationship between President Donald Trump’s America and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and arms dealing in the Middle East. It concludes that Iran was used as a bogeyman to justify America’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, its largest ever.

[3] The column describes the new US ambassador to Israel David Friedman; Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer; and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner as “orthodox Jews”. It also points out that two of the past five US ambassadors to Israel were Jewish.

[4] Frederikse begins the piece stating that Jews when they meet often try to identify people they have in common and that there are 14-20 million Jews worldwide – roughly a third in Israel, a third in the US, and the final third spread around the world.

The Complaint

[5] Bolot and Cumin both complain under Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity, arguing that, contrary to that standard, the column places gratuitous emphasis on the fact that many of those mentioned are Jewish.

[6] Cumin goes onto argue there is no good reason to focus on the faith of those discussed and it is not “important or relevant to the opinion… that Iran is a ‘bogeyman’.” He singles out the repeated use of “orthodox Jew” as gratuitous as well.

[7] Bolot seem to accept the column does not describe the people and their faith in pejorative terms, but argues that to breach Principle 7 it simply has to place “unnecessary emphasis” on their religious or ethnic background.

[8] Both men suggest Frederikse is perpetuating a “conspiracy theory”. Bolot spells this out, writing, the piece “repeats a long-standing anti-semitic libel, namely that persons of the Jewish faith or Jewish descent conspire together to manipulate political events.”

[9] Cumin refers to the mention at the start of the article of the number of Jews in the world and points out that the columnist never returns to those numbers.

[10] Bolot argues the piece implies it’s their religion that “leads them to behave in a reprehensible manner”. “This sort of Jewish conspiracy theory could have been written in Germany in the 1930s” and is an affront to standards of decency and tolerance, he says.

[11] Finally, Bolot argues: “It is no defence that a person pejoratively described as Jewish is in fact Jewish.”

The Response

12] Chronicle editor Mark Dawson begins his response with a series of bullet points, stating that the column is an opinion piece and clearly marked as such; he is unaware of any factual errors; the article makes no derogatory comments about Jews; and aside from the opening two paragraphs the article deals with individuals not the Jewish people as a whole. He also explains that Frederikse’s columns focus on “human geography” in discreet regions and he has previously written on Wahhabism, Buddhists, Palestinians, Tibetans and Hong Kong Chinese, amongst others.

[13] His final bullet points more specifically address the complaints under Principle 7. First, he notes the influence of Friedman and Kushner on US policy is worthy of comment and has led to what he calls a “more extreme” position on Israel-Palestine issues.

[14] Second, he says the influence of a wide range of lobby groups in US politics is a matter of public interest and does not amount to the conspiracy the complainants allege. Indeed, there is no conspiracy referred to.

[15] Dawson adds that while the author in this case deals with Jewish influences on Middle East affairs, just as the week before he wrote about Arab influences and, in the past, Muslim influences. It is an article primarily not about religion, but rather politics.

[16] He warns that the complainants’ logic would stifle the media’s ability to write about any and all religions for fear of being gratuitous. The column is one man’s opinion and the complaints amount to an attempt to stifle free speech and censor debate.

The Decision

17] Principle 7 is clear that news organisations have the right to publish opinions on what can be sensitive issues. The key is whether or not the opinions expressed place gratuitous emphasis on – in this case – a person’s “race” or “religion”.

[18] In considering this column, it then comes down to whether the religious views of those being criticised in the article are pertinent to that criticism. There is nothing directly pejorative in Frederikse’s description of Jews, the question is one of context.

[19] By starting his column with generalisations about 14-20 million Jews and their supposed closeness, Frederikse certainly sails close to the wind. Quite why he thought such generalisations useful is unclear and more care was needed. However rather then head down a gratuitous path, he instead narrows his focus to three particular men and their influence on Middle Eastern politics.

[20] It becomes clear that the columnist believes their religion is driving what he sees as extremist policies in that part of the world. That does make their religion central to his opinion. Indeed, he argues it’s their “orthodox” Judaism that has led to a change in US policy. To underline that he usefully identifies two Jewish former US ambassadors on the opposite side of the debate.

[21] So describing Friedman, Kushner and Dermer as “orthodox Jews” is not to libel them, but rather to attribute to them a certain conservative world view, in the same way we might discuss “fundamentalist Christians”. Frederikse has the right to be critical of that world view, just as the complainants have the right to be critical of his.

[22] To label the trio as followers of a particular faith – and even to criticise their expression of it – is not to place gratuitous or unnecessary emphasis on that faith, particularly when discussing a region where politics and religious beliefs are so intertwined.

[23] While Bolot argues “It is no defence that a person pejoratively described as Jewish is in fact Jewish”, it is equally true that to describe a Jewish person in pejorative terms does not amount to a criticism of all Jews.

[24] Finally to suggest, as Frederikse does, that these three powerful men share a particular agenda (or are even conspiring together) is not the same as suggesting all Jews – or even all orthodox Jews – are part of a global conspiracy, even in the context of those poorly worded opening lines. The complaints against Principle 7 are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.