Case Number: 968

Council Meeting: MARCH 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Philip Rama complained to the Press Council about an article in the New Zealand Herald on 14 November 2003 which reported on the death toll amongst coalition forces in Iraq. The article was accompanied by a graphic, sourced to Reuters and the New Zealand Herald, which enumerated combat / non combat deaths of United States, British and other coalition defense forces respectively.

Mr Rama complained that the newspaper failed to publish any equivalent graphic enumerating casualties among Iraqi forces and civilians and this, he complained, breached Principle 1 of the Statement of Principles. It was his view that the newspaper should have reported the statistics from each side of the Iraqi conflict in order to provide readers with a fair and complete picture of this military action.

He complained to the New Zealand Herald by letter dated 19 November 2003. This letter was not acknowledged in any way by the newspaper. He reiterated his complaint by letter dated 12 December 2003 requesting a response as well as information about how to proceed with a complaint to the New Zealand Press Council. Again, his letter was not acknowledged in any way by the newspaper. He then complained to the Press Council which sought a response from the editor of the New Zealand Herald.

The editor argued that the story was about the effect the rising toll of casualties was having in the countries which had contributed military personnel to the coalition forces. There had been calls for the withdrawal of the troops from at least some of these countries and, accordingly, the editor determined the statistics which had contributed to these calls were a necessary component of this story.

The editor did not contest Mr Rama’s general view that readers should be made aware of the death toll among Iraqi forces and civilians, but he did maintain that this information was not directly relevant to the article about which Mr Rama complains. It was not, therefore, included in the particular article complained about.

The issue is whether the article was inaccurate. The Press Council concludes that it was not and it does not uphold the complaint. The article was one which had a specific and narrow focus. It was an accurate article within that focus.

Nevertheless, the Press Council does express disquiet about the newspaper failing to acknowledge, or respond to, Mr Rama’s two letters of complaint. There has been no explanation from the editor about the reason for this omission. The Press Council re-iterates its previously expressed view that it is desirable for a newspaper to respond to complaints prior to any independent process of adjudication being embarked upon. In making these comments the Council does not overlook the difficulties faced by the editor of a large daily newspaper that receives a large volume of letters each day and on the face of some letters it is sometimes not clear that the letter is one of complaint not general comment.

Mr Jim Eagles took no part in the consideration of this complaint.