A complaint to the Press Complaints Commission by campaigners for Palestinian rights has forced the Jewish Chronicle to modify an article alleging anti-Jewish racism during a public meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies last December.
For almost a year, the JC’s website carried a story stating that a Jewish man was subjected to “overpowering racist jeering” when asking a question at the London meeting, called to consider the parallels between apartheid in South Africa in the past and in Israel now.
The story alleged that Jonathan Hoffman ‘was told he was “not welcome” after revealing his Jewish name.’
The JC story did not say that this was vehemently denied by many of those present, including many Jews, that the panel included veteran Jewish anti-racism campaigner Ronnie Kasrils, a former member of Nelson Mandela’s ANC government, and that Hoffman, co-vice chair of the Zionist Federation, was well-known for disrupting meetings opposed to Israel’s illegal activities.
Mike Cushman, a Jewish member of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, was one of the organisers of the meeting. He told the commission that his words had been, inadvertently or maliciously, misheard and misinterpreted on the publicly available video recording.
“No-one jeered at Hoffman for being Jewish,” Mr Cushman said. “It was his history of hostility to Palestinian human rights that made him unwelcome.”
The Commission said the JC story had made “serious allegations.” It breached the Editor’s Code on accuracy by failing to take care “not to publish inaccurate or misleading information” and by failing to tell readers that its account was strongly contested (full PCC text attached).
JC editor Stephen Pollard responded dismissively when asked last May by one of the sponsors of the meeting, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, to retract the story.
“We drew his attention to the fact that the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit had acknowledged errors in a BBC Online story that was the source of the JC’s report, but he refused point blank to discuss it,” said Ms Wimborne-Idrissi.
In an email exchange in June Mr Pollard insisted the JC story was “entirely accurate” and wrote: “I do not propose to enter into a correspondence with you or your contemptible organization.”
“Only after we involved the PCC did the paper admit to misleading its readers,” Ms Wimborne-Idrissi said.
She said it was disappointing that the PCC had fallen short of requiring the JC to admit that its story was plain wrong, not just “contested”.
But she said it was positive that the Commission had insisted on the statement which now follows the JC’s online story.
The Press Complaints Commission decision in full is included below.
NOTE TO EDITORS
Commission’s decision in the case of
Wimborne-Idrissi v Jewish Chronicle
The complainant said the newspaper had inaccurately reported that an audience member at a meeting of activists, which she had attended, had been told he was “not welcome” because of his Jewish name. The article had also quoted a claim that the man, Jonathan Hoffman, had been subjected to “overpowering racist jeering” when he spoke during a question-and-answer session and said that there had been a shout of “Jewish”.
As the complainant had recognised in correspondence, the matter was to an extent one of interpretation. It turned on an indistinct video recording of the incident, in which a number of people were loudly speaking at once. While the Commission noted the evidence provided by the complainant – which included a statement by Mike Cushman, an audience member who said that his words had been misheard and misinterpreted – the Commission considered that it was not in a position to establish that the newspaper’s claims were inaccurate. The newspaper, and those quoted in the article, were entitled under the principle of freedom of expression to set out their views as to the nature and cause of the protest against Mr Hoffman, subject to the requirements of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.
The Commission noted that the article had appeared online only, where it was accompanied by a video that showed nearly ten minutes of the question-and-answer session. This recording – which the complainant considered corroborated her position – would have assisted readers in forming their own views about the claims made in the article.
Nonetheless, the Commission concluded on balance that the newspaper had not taken care as required under Clause 1 not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. It had not made clear to readers that its account – and the account of those quoted in the article – was contested, nor that there existed strongly competing alternative views, including the complainant’s. To that extent, the article may have significantly misled readers as to the underlying position. The result was a breach of the Code.
Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code states that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected. The newspaper had offered in correspondence to append the following statement to the article: The facts of this story are in dispute. Since it was published, the organisers of the meeting have been in touch to tell us that they absolutely deny that there was any “racist jeering”. In their view, the words reported were misheard. They say what was actually said was: “Do you really want to know?”, in response to Mr Hoffman’s question, “Why don’t you let me speak?”. They say that Mr Hoffman was unwelcome because of his views, not because of his Jewish name.
The complainant considered that this wording was inadequate and that the article should be withdrawn entirely, with an apology by the newspaper and statement by two of the groups involved in the meeting substituted in its place.
The Commission recognised that the allegations made in the article were serious, involving a highly charged area of debate. However, it considered that the role of the statement, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Code, was to make clear to readers that the version of events reported in the article was strongly disputed by a number of those who were present at the meeting.
On balance, the Commission concluded that the wording offered by the newspaper was sufficient for this purpose. It therefore considered that the amendment of the article had constituted a proportionate and appropriate remedy in the circumstances. The Commission hoped that the complainant would reconsider her rejection of this remedy and trusted that it would remain open to her.
Reference No. 103274
Press Complaints Commission
London EC1N 2JD
Tel: 020 7831 0022