Ruling

08102-15 Levick v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      26th February 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 08102-15 Levick v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Adam Levick, managing editor of UK Media Watch, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Thicker than water: a bloody good show”, published in print and online on 4 November 2015.

2. The article was a review of the London Jewish Museum exhibition “Blood: Uniting and Dividing”, published in the Arts section of the “Times 2” supplement. It discussed a number of exhibits concerned with the role blood has played in the history of anti-Semitism. The review was written in the first person, and the paragraph relevant to this complaint began “even so, this edgy exhibition illustrates for me an essentially dark theme…”. It then went on to discuss an American request for blood donation from 1944 displayed in the exhibition, which stated that “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, it’s all American blood!”, and the reviewer commented that “at the same time, blood from African-Americans was not used for transfusion; that was a mystical blood barrier to far”. The review then stated that “to its credit the exhibition also reminds visitors that in the 1990s the Israeli blood donation services took blood from Ethiopian immigrants, then routinely discarded it for no other good reason apparently than the race of the donors.”

3. The article was also published on the Arts section of the newspaper’s website in substantially the same form.

4. The complainant said that it was misleading to claim that the exhibition reminded visitors that the blood donations from Ethiopian migrants had been discarded for “no other good reason apparently than the race of the donors”. He said that the relevant exhibit cited serious concerns about the contamination of blood with HIV and other diseases as reasons why the Israeli blood services had discarded the blood donations, and did not draw the conclusion that the blood was discarded for no other reason than the race of the donors.  He said that the claim about the reasons why the blood donations were discarded was not presented as the reviewer’s personal opinion; in the context of a museum review, the sentence would be understood as a factual claim made on the basis of what the reviewer had seen at the exhibition, and was therefore misleading.

5. The complainant raised an additional concern the claim was itself inaccurate. He said that the blood donations were actually discarded due to the legitimate fear of transmitting HIV and other serious diseases.  In support of his position, he noted that the Navon Commission has published a report into the episode, which concluded that the disposal of blood donations had not been motivated by race. Instead, it found that the Israeli blood services had failed to update an earlier, medically sound, directive which related to the spread of disease. The complainant said that, while debatable, the reviewer’s personal opinion on the reasons the blood donations was reasonable. However, the review had maintained this claim as a fact, and was therefore misleading.

6. The complainant supplied a film of footage featured as part of the exhibit. It showed protests relating to the issue, subtitled as follows:

“The immediate cause of the flair up was the health minister’s decision to discard Ethiopian blood donations because of an alleged AIDS risk. This was all too much for the Ethiopian community.   Placards echoed their feelings. The message: “our skin may be black but our blood is red”. Hidden cameras recorded Ethiopians donating blood that was ultimately thrown away. Their leaders pointed the finger of racism at the medical authorities.”

7. The newspaper said that the reviewer's comment was not a factual account of the information conveyed by the museum exhibit, or indeed a claim of fact about the reasons why the blood was discarded. The review informed readers that the exhibition reminded its visitors of a controversial episode in Israel’s past, widely seen at the time as reflecting badly on Israel.  The newspaper said that the word “apparently” in the sentence under complaint made clear that the reviewer’s concern was not with the reasons for the blood donations being discarded, whatever they may or may not have been, but simply with the fact that the exhibition had, to its credit, included a reminder to visitors of a controversial episode in Israel’s past.

8. The newspaper noted the complainant’s position that blood donations were discarded for legitimate medical reasons, rather than on the basis of race, but said that the sentence in question was a passing remark on the episode, which was clearly presented as the opinion of the reviewer. Nevertheless, it said that the complainant’s view was not universally held at the time, nor was it a view that has been without its critics since. It noted that a 2013 article in the Jerusalem Post had commented that “the AIDS excuse for rejecting blood from Ethiopian-born Israelis has never had solid scientific backing and it has often been part of a stereotyping campaign subjecting this group to discriminatory and secret policies”. It also noted that the Navon Commission report referred to by the complainant had “called upon the government to work to ensure that Ethiopian immigrants gain full recognition as Jews”.

9. In response to this complaint, the newspaper inserted a dash to the relevant sentence of the online article, so that it read as follows:

“To its credit the exhibition also reminds visitors that in the 1990s the Israeli blood donation services took blood from Ethiopian immigrants, then routinely discarded it — for no other good reason apparently than the race of the donors.”

Relevant Code Provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

11. The exhibit in question had informed visitors about the allegations that the policy to discard the blood donations was racist, in the form of the news footage and subtitles. It was accurate for the reviewer to have suggested that the exhibition had “reminded” visitors of the controversy. The Committee acknowledged that there was a potential ambiguity in the brief reference as to whether the “apparent” lack of a “good reason” for the policy (beyond the race of donors) was the comment of the reviewer or that of the exhibition. Nonetheless, the comment had been made in the context of a review of the exhibition, clearly presented as such, and the Committee did not consider that, in this context, the ambiguity was significant such that it constituted a failure to distinguish comment from fact, or that it was significantly misleading such that remedial action was required under Clause 1 (ii).

12. The Committee turned to the complaint that the review provided a misleading account of the reasons why the blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants were discarded. The Committee noted that, notwithstanding the findings of the Navon Commission, the motivations behind the policy remain a matter of debate and interpretation; the complainant acknowledged that the reviewer’s point of view was a reasonable one, although he disagreed. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 11/11/2015
Date decision issued: 26/02/2016