Case Number: 818

Council Meeting: February 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

A three part complaint by the Auckland Jewish Council against the New Zealand Herald has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council. The Auckland Jewish Council complained to the New Zealand Herald about three matters: the publication of letters the council considered offensive, the editing of a published letter written by the council chairperson Wendy Ross and the headlines used over a series of letters.
The first letter from Lloyd Gretton, published on October 27 under the headline "Middle East crisis: Zionists must go" stated "Zionism is a global racist and violent cult" and alluded to "an evil enemy" and "mass murder" in its references to the turmoil in Israel. The response from Wendy Ross, published under the headline "Judaism and Zionism" called Lloyd Gretton's letter "a hate-filled diatribe not worthy of a reasoned factual response" and stated that "Zionism is inextricably woven into Judaism". She quoted an Abba Ebban letter in which he referred to the discriminatory principle of anti-Semitism being transferred from the realm of individual rights to the domain of collective identity as anti-Zionism.
Subsequent letters from Bob Downer and W Fraser, headed "Zionism and racism" (misleadingly "Zionist and racism" in the first case) referred to "Wendy Ross's diatribe", Zionist mythmakers and intransigence, and stated "one holocaust has not taught how to prevent another. This is the difference between Judaism and Zionism".

On behalf of the Auckland Jewish Council, Wendy Ross complained to the editor about Lloyd Gretton's letter as being "offensive in both its gross errors and bigotry". Equally she criticised Bob Downer's letter as containing "the most extraordinary distortions and lies". One strong section of the complaint was the removal of the word "therefore" from the statement "I am a Jew and therefore a Zionist" in Wendy Ross's published letter.

The sub-editor deputed to handle the readers' letters, Garth George, responded directly by email that the "therefore" was removed because he "could not be sure that all Jews are Zionists". Mrs Ross extrapolates from this that letters chosen for publication are only those Mr George believes to be true. The unguarded response by the sub-editor to the complaint about the omission of "therefore" cannot itself be raised to the level of an independent ground for complaint.

The Council viewed the short sentence as one packed with meaning in which the word "therefore" played the central role for the conveyance of the writer's personal message on the true relationship of Judaism and Zionism. Having said that, the Council does not regard the editing my omission as other than unwise and for the ordinary reader unlikely to materially attenuate her views in the context of the whole letter.

The Auckland Jewish Council originally acknowledged the difficulties the paper must have in dealing with "such a fraught subject", while the editor's reply said the correspondence had eventually been closed because it had begun to degenerate into an unpleasant religious free-for-all. It is in this highly charged atmosphere that the proponents' views were expressed.

The essence of the Auckland Jewish Council's complaint was the Herald's publication of "profoundly offensive and demonstrably untrue letters, offensively headlined.…" In response to the Press Council, the editor Stephen Davis defended the letters selection, headlines in general (while admitting an error in the "Zionist and racism" headline") and said Mr George clearly did not intend to indicate the Herald only published letters that it knew to be factual.

The complaint that the content of the letters was offensive is to the point. Here Principle 12 on letter selection is relevant. But there is no sanction in the principle -- requiring fairness, balance and public interest to be applied to letters -- which prevents offensive statements or opinions from being published, usually with contrary views also given space.

Often offensive matter depends on taste, community attitudes or the person offended (eg a monarchist offended by criticism of the Queen Mother) and the Press Council principles do not refer to matters of taste. Even if a correspondent to the newspaper states baldly, in the face of historical evidence, that the Holocaust did not take place in World War II, the letter may not necessarily be barred from publication but would find definite challenges to its assertions in the letters to the editor columns. That is part of a free press.

It is also part of the free and unfettered exchange of opinion in an open society that offensive expression will find a place, even where distortions or extreme views are integral to such expressions. In the well-known Skokie case in the United States, concerning the application by neo-Nazis to march through a Jewish area, it was affirmed that "however pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend on its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas." The counter to extreme distortions is the publication of statements that point to the true and reasonable picture. Newspapers will inevitably reflect all these sections of society. This part of the complaint is not upheld.

On the complaint over the headlines used, the newspaper seems casual at best in introducing the word "racism" into the debate, but not sufficiently neglectful to warrant upholding of the complaint. Headlines over letters to the editor have more latitude than those over news reports and articles which are intended to have the authority of the publication behind them.