RENEE WELLS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2595

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Discrimination
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Renee Wells has complained about an opinion piece from James Harkin published in theNew Zealand Herald (May 24, 2017) about the Manchester bombing. The crux of the piece centres on the elements of Western culture which Islamic State despise. Mr Harkin’s opinion piece was based on his understanding of and experience with Islamic State which included regularly reporting over the years on the rise in Islamic State.

The Complaint

Renee Wells complained to the Herald that the article was incredibly offensive and rude. It was demeaning to Ariana Grande and those who lost their lives or were injured during the attack. Ms Wells believed there was no need for such “negative publicity” so soon after the attack. She urged the Herald to in future write “factual and information” articles rather than clickbait ones.

In her response to the editor’s response, Ms Wells believes that the article does convey that Grande was in some way responsible for the bombing. The article does not suggest that but comments on the online version of the article andHerald Facebook reaffirm that she might not have been the only one of that view. Moreover, the online comments show “the offence and damage” the article has caused.

Ms Wells cites Press Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; opinion and fact; and discrimination and diversity.

She demanded the removal of the article as it was offensive to the Islamic Community, Ariana Grande and those who were victims of the attack.

The Response

Oskar Alley, Senior Newsroom Editor responded on behalf of New Zealand Herald. The main points can be summarised as following:

  • James Harkin is a director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and an author who has spent considerable time based in Syria and northern Iraq since 2011 reporting on the rise of Islamic State. In short, his credentials are impeccable on the subject of Isis, based on his own personal experience and research in Syria.
  • British authorities had confirmed the Manchester bomber had links to Islamic State. In the context of this terrorist attack, it was entirely plausible for the coverage to extend to discussion of why this particular event in a public place would be a target for a deliberate terrorist act.
  • Accuracy, fairness and balance: Ms Wells does not cite any specific errors in the article, which accurately conveys factual information about previous terrorist plots/attacks in London and Paris. The article also includes anecdotal information the author obtained about Isis while he was based in Syria.
  • Harkin’s article was one of more than 30 articles published by nzherald.co.nz in the days after the Ariana Grande concert bombing. In terms of balance, the article correctly notes that Islamic State has previously made public statements relating to music, and at the time of writing Isis had publicly claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack.
  • It is not necessary for the author to seek balancing comment from Islamic State (and given the Manchester bomber was killed in the suicide attack).
  • The article does not suggest that Grande was in any way responsible for the bombing. It merely notes accurately that she is known for wearing “revealing” stage outfits and displays “unabashed sexual confidence”. The article explains why this could be anathema to Islamic State members, given its previous terrorist attacks targeting music venues.
  • The article speaks specifically to Islamic State and its beliefs – they are a radical jihadist terrorist group. The article takes considerable care to target Isis in its comments, not the Islamic community in general.
  • Comment and fact / Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters: The article is clearly labelled as an “Opinion” in both the synopsis (the one-paragraph blurb directly underneath the headline) and the article was also tagged to the “Opinion” section and the main (search-engine optimised) headline states: “Comment: Manchester attack: Ariana Grande and her outfits are a symbol of everything Islamic State hates”. The article was clearly labelled as Opinion, in accordance with these principles.
  • Discrimination and diversity: The article takes considerable care to target Islamic State and its members’ beliefs, with Isis directly referenced in the article’s introductory and third paragraphs - and a further 12 times in the article.
  • Principle 7 enshrines a publication’s right to “report and express opinions” on matters relating to issues such as religion and minority groups. The article does not come close to placing gratuitous emphasis on Islam in general, but makes a series of observations specific only to Islamic State – an organisation which has publicly claimed credit for the Manchester bombing (and many other acts of terrorism).
  • The article does not seek to impugn anyone of Islamic faith, or to discriminate against anyone of this faith - but it does speak directly to the public comments and actions of Islamic State.

The Decision

The article in question is an Opinion Piece and clearly tagged as such. In addition, it is a piece from someone who has significant experience with the topic at hand, Islamic State and their reasons for carrying out terrorist attacks against Western targets.

James Harkin’s opinion piece makes it clear, on a number of occasions, that Islamic State is the target of his criticism not the Islamic or Muslim community. A reasonable reader of the article will see the difference between Islamic State and Islamic or Muslim Community.

Opinion pieces are based on elements of fact which often come through the lived experience of the writer. The Press Council agrees with Mr Alley that there is clear evidence that Isis is intent on destroying elements of any culture including Western music and lifestyle which does not align with its orthodoxy. Other articles on Manchester from New Zealand publications and around the world also covered the view of many Muslim leaders condemning the attack and intent behind it. Given Mr Harkin’s credentials, the reader would appreciate the insights given.

The bombing of Manchester was a horrific terrorist attack for which IS claimed responsibility. Reporting on the attack from all angles would naturally be negative in nature given the damage and impact of the atrocity. As Mr Alley notes, this opinion piece was one of 30 or so articles from the NZ Herald in the days following the attack. A number of these covered the background stories of the victims and families impacted. It also covered stories about those who came to the aid of many of those injured. Whilst clearly a negative situation, such stories or articles bring a sense of optimism to those who read them.

Following these IS terrorist attacks, one of the questions most often asked by the public, media, politicians and others is why Islamic State is intent on destroying any culture that they (IS) regard as evil. Mr Harkin’s opinion piece gives the reader one view point amongst a flood of other articles and opinion pieces seeking to answer that question.

We acknowledge Ms Wells’ point about some readers having had come to similar views as hers in regards to the piece. The views (and expression of these) of other readers on theNZ Herald Facebook and on the online version of the article is part and parcel of a free society, which ironically is not present under the territory that is occupied by Islamic State.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

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