Decision of the Complaints Committee 14095-16 Coulter v The Sunday Times
Summary of complaint
1. Jonathan Coulter complained on behalf of the Palestinian Return Centre, in addition to 10 other complainants, that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Peace be upon Israel- the Lib Dems have cut off their Tonge” published in print and online on 30 October 2016.
2. The article was a comment piece, which referred to Baroness Tonge having “quit the Liberal Democrats after being suspended by her party”. It went on to criticise Baroness Tonge for hosting a meeting for the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC). The article claimed that Baroness Tonge “cheerfully clapped and cheered along as they spouted the stuff you might have heard in Berlin in 1936, or Tehran in 2012”. Referring to the meeting, the article claimed “Off they went: the UK should apologise for having created Israel; that country should be wiped from the map — that’s for starters. Then: Jews caused the Holocaust because they pushed Hitler too far; Israel is comparable to ISIS; and — my favourite, since you ask — if any country in the world is anti-semitic, it’s Israel.”
3. The complainant said that nobody had asked the UK to apologise for “having created Israel”, or said that Israel should be “wiped from the map”. He said it was misleading to claim that someone had said “Jews caused the Holocaust because they pushed Hitler too far”; the audience member in question had referred to a Rabbi who had boycotted Germany, and had said that this “antagonised Hitler over the edge”. The complainant denied that this audience member had blamed Jews more generally.
4. The complainant said that the article’s claim that Israel had been compared to ISIS at the meeting implied that someone had said they were comparably violent. He said that this was misleading as in fact, a comparison had been made on the basis that both distorted the religions to which they claimed allegiance. The complainant was concerned that the contributions of the invited speakers and other attendees of the meeting were not reported. He said that the meeting bore no resemblance to what was said “in Berlin in 1936 or Tehran in 2012”.
5. The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies and misleading statements about Baroness Tonge’s views and previous actions.
6. The newspaper said that the article did not report on the PRC meeting; the columnist was commenting on the resignation of Baroness Tonge from the Liberal Democrats. In doing so, the article included a short account of what had been reported about the meeting, briefly summarising the comments of participants. The newspaper said that the meeting treated the Balfour Declaration as synonymous with the creation of Israel; by calling for an apology for the Balfour Declaration, participants were calling for an apology for the creation of Israel. It noted that one participant stated that “Israel would not have been founded if it had not been for the Balfour Declaration”, before calling for Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration.
7. The newspaper said that the PRC, who hosted the meeting, call for the “right to return” of Palestinian refugees to their pre-1948 homes, and that participants of the meeting had also called for the “right to return”. It said that this represented such a large demographic transformation that the state of Israel would no longer exist in its present form. It said it was not inaccurate to claim that the meeting had heard that Israel should be “wiped from the map”. The newspaper said that one of the participants had said that “one of the main Zionist speakers in America, so-called Rabbi Stephen Wise…made the boycott on Germany, the economic boycott on Germany, which antagonised Hitler over the edge to then want to systematically kill Jews where he could find them…”. It said that the same participant had said that “just as the so-called Jewish state in Palestine was created by – it doesn’t come from Judaism…so this Islamic state in Syria is nothing to do with Islam. It is a perversion of Islam, just as Zionism is a perversion of Judaism”. The newspaper said it was not inaccurate to claim that the meeting had heard that “Jews caused the Holocaust because they pushed Hitler too far”, or that Israel was comparable to ISIS.
8. The newspaper offered to publish the following clarification:
In his column Peace be upon Israel – the Lib Dems have cut off their Tonge (Oct 30, 2016) Rod Liddle commented on a report that an audience member at a meeting hosted by Baroness Tonge was applauded after saying Hitler was provoked into exterminating the Jews by a rabbi who had called for a boycott of Germany. We are happy to clarify that the applause came after she thanked this speaker for introducing the word "boycott" and voiced her own support for a boycott of Israel.
Relevant Code provisions
9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
10. The article was a comment piece, and clearly presented as such. It contained a brief summary of the claims made at the meeting in question. One attendee had said that Israel would not have been founded, were it not for the Balfour Declaration; he then called for Britain to apologise. The article’s claim that the meeting had heard that “the UK should apologise for having created Israel”, was not misleading. The complainant did not dispute that some participants called for a right of return, or that this would result in large demographic change in Israel. The author of the article was entitled to characterise this position as believing that Israel “should be wiped from the map”. A participant had said that “one of the main Zionist speakers in America”, had “antagonised Hitler over the edge to then want to systematically kill Jews”. The article’s claim that the meeting had heard that “Jews caused the Holocaust because they pushed Hitler too far” was not misleading. A participant had drawn a comparison between Israel to Islamic state, and it was not misleading to claim that the meeting had heard that they were comparable. These aspects of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
11. The Committee considered that where the article made clear the basis for the claim that participants at the meeting had “spouted the sort of stuff you might have heard in Berlin in 1936, or Tehran in 2012”, which was plainly comment, distinguished from fact, this characterisation of their contributions was not misleading, such as to raise a breach of Clause 1. While not required under the Code, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish the clarification.
12. The complainant also raised concern that the article contained inaccuracies in relation to Baroness Tonge’s conduct at the event, and her previous actions. The Committee considered that the complainant was a third party in relation these alleged inaccuracies. Having considered the position of the party most closely involved, Baroness Tonge, it declined to consider these aspects of the complaint further.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 03/12/2016
Date complaint concluded: 21/04/2017
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