Toothless PCC upholds Indy blogger’s right to grossly mislead readers about Israel

Note: an update to this post appears at the bottom.

On June 22 Richard Sudan, a blogger at The Independent, published a post (“Note to refugees from South Sudan: Israel is for the white man“) claiming that Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, had said “Israel is for the white man”, thus conveying to readers the impression that Yishai (who happens to be of Tunisian descent) is a white racist.

Sudan actually evoked a Nazi analogy by suggesting that Yishai’s comments represented evidence that Zionism advances a form of “superior race theory”.

However, leaving aside Sudan’s insidious moral analogy, we pointed out (in a post at the time), that the quote was false, and was, in fact, the result of an appalling twisting of what Yishai did say.

Sudan claimed that Yishai said “Israel is for the white man”.

However, Yishai did say, in an interview in Ma’ariv about Sudanese refugees entering Israel, the following:

“Most of the [migrants] who come here are Muslims who think this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man. Some of them have said so openly on television”

Yishai was not stating his own view’s on Israel but, rather, his belief regarding the views of others – some of whom (he claimed) had declared their opinions on TV.

Jonathan Hoffman complained about the misquote to The Independent, and they agreed to amend the opening paragraph of the blog posting “so that it contains the full quote”.

“Most of the people who come here are Muslims who think this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man.

However, they did not include the subsequent sentence from Yishai’s quote: “Some of them have said so openly on television”. Neither did they change the horribly misleading title of of Sudan’s post:

And, The Independent similarly didn’t alter Sudan’s deceitful contextualization of the quote in the closing sentence of the post:

“The perception of an emerging ethnic cleansing policy ensuring that Israel remains ‘For the white man’ will evidently continue.”

Hoffman, therefore, took the Independent to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission 

The Commission’s decision, in the case of Hoffman vs. The Independent, included the following (with emphases added):

The complainant considered that the newspaper had reported comments made by Eli Yishai in an inaccurate, misleading and distorted manner, and had failed to remedy this breach in a sufficient manner. 

Under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy), “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” and, further, “the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

The Commission noted that the article in question was not a news report, but rather a blog piece which was clearly marked at the top as being an “opinion” piece. The author of the blog was entitled to express his views and interpretation of the comments made by Eli Yishai, and readers of the piece would understand that the blog was reflective of the author’s opinions. Nonetheless, although the genre of the article was clearly distinguished as an opinion piece, the newspaper was still required to distinguish between fact and comment within the piece.

In the original version of the article, the opening paragraph had served as a follow on to the headline, therefore suggesting that Eli Yishai had explicitly stated as his position “Israel is for the white man”. It had not included the longer quote or made clear that this was the author’s interpretation of the comment made by Israel’s interior minister. While the author was entitled to express his interpretation of the comment – that it revealed Mr Yishai’s own views on who Israel “belonged to” – it was incumbent on the newspaper to distinguish his interpretation as an opinion. In the view of the Commission, the newspaper had failed to do this, therefore potentially misleading readers. This raised a breach of Clause 1 (i) and (iii) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The newspaper was accordingly required under Clause 1 (ii) to correct the misleading impression created, promptly and with due prominence.

The newspaper had, before the complaint was made to the PCC, amended the opening paragraph to include the full sentence from which the author made his interpretation: “Most of the people [immigrants] coming here are Muslims who think the land doesn’t belong to us, to the white man”. It had then offered to publish a footnote recording this alteration. In the view of the Commission, the actions taken and offered would amount to sufficient compliance with Clause 1 (ii). 

Here is the footnote as it now appears at the end of Sudan’s post:

The Commission acknowledged that the complainant did not consider that these actions were sufficient on the following grounds: the headline remained misleading; the end of the article would continue to mislead readers; and the quote was not full, as it failed to include the additional sentence “Some of them have said so openly on television”.

As previously noted, the author was entitled to express his interpretation of the comment made by Eli Yishai, provided it was distinguished as such. While the complainant evidently strongly disagreed with the interpretation expressed in the blog – instead holding the view the comment just repeated the views of Muslim immigrants and did not reveal the minister’s own opinion – the author had a right to express his view. Given that the article now included the full sentence from which the author had taken his interpretation, the Commission could not agree that readers would be misled by the headline or final sentence. They would see the full sentence and be able to form their own view as to whether they agreed with the author’s interpretation.

The Commission could not therefore agree that the headline and the final sentence of the amended article would significantly mislead readers so as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

But, the key additional sentence, “Some of them have said so openly on television”, which could provide the reader with a clear indication that Yishai was characterizing the migrants’ attitudes, and not his own, was still omitted.  

And the PCC indeed acknowledged Hoffman’s concerns:

The complainant considered that the absence of the subsequent sentence “Some of them have said so openly on television” rendered the article inaccurate and misleading. The complainant said that this was central in distinguishing the comment as being an expression of the views held by others rather than an expression of the speaker’s own views.

The PCC then proceeded with the following obfuscation:

The Commission noted that the preceding sentence, which had already been added to the article, already reported his comment that he was repeating the view of the Muslim immigrants: “Most of the people [immigrants] coming here are Muslims who think the land doesn’t belong to us, to the white man”. The Commission could not agree that the absence of the following sentence [Some of them have said so openly on television] rendered the article inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

Finally, the complainant considered that it was inaccurate for the footnote to refer to the “full quote”. Given that the article had been amended to include the full sentence on which the author had based his interpretation and that the Commission did not consider that the absence of the second sentence was misleading, the Commission could not agree that the wording of the footnote was significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code in this regard.

The fact is that it is impossible to read even Richard Sudan’s slightly amended post and not come away with the false impression that Yishai and, by inference, Zionists more broadly, believe that Israel is “for the white man”.

Yishai, who, like roughly 50% of Israeli Jews, is a ‘Jew of color’, simply did not advance such a racist notion.

The episode represents yet another troubling example of a toothless PCC unwilling to hold the British press accountable to basic standards of truth and accuracy. 

Update, 8th August 2012: 

Jonathan Hoffman commented: “If there was an Olympic gold medal for verbal gymnastics, the PCC would have no competition. This case proves yet again that the PCC is either unable or unwilling to act against deliberate smears of Israel and its leaders.”
 
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