Investigate response to Press Council ruling

A Press Council ruling partially upholding a complaint by Air New Zealand against Investigate has been released today, which is somewhat surprising given that Investigate had been invited to place further evidence in front of the Press Council for a review next Monday.

The council ruled that Investigate had erred by calling the flights “secret”, and that our cover montage of an Air New Zealand jet beside a military plane with a soldier nearby was also misleading.

Given that the issue has gone public prior to the review, Investigate has no choice but to release its submission to the Press Council below:

Dear Mary

Further to our last correspondence, please find attached a copy of an email from Air New Zealand head office, specifically the then Manager of Government Relations Rick Osborne, to senior officials inside MFAT.

The email is a further advisory to MFAT about some of the Australian troop flights.

Significantly, the email, at Air New Zealand’s initiative, is classified “CONFIDENTIAL”. Download file

Also significantly, the email is loosely contemporaneous (just a few weeks prior) with when Investigate was first alerted by Air New Zealand staff about the first flight. Those staff, I repeat, told the magazine the flights were confidential.

In Parliament, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters also conceded the confidential nature of the flights:

Answer: That last phrase is the most apposite part of the question. What they comprised was never advised to Foreign Affairs—that is, who was on the plane, their designation and description, and where they were going to go when they arrived in Kuwait never described to Foreign Affairs. It happens to be a fact that had Foreign Affairs known that, I think its reaction would have been different. However, because of circumstances, that was a matter of confidentiality in respect of the contract itself, and I can see how these circumstances have arisen. The point is that a mistake was made. A lesson has been learnt. We will not repeat that mistake in the future. – Hansard, 16 August 2007

The Press Council made an adverse ruling against Investigate magazine on the secrecy issue, preferring to take Air New Zealand’s unsubstantiated complaint at face value, despite our warnings that the airline habitually lies, and our insistence that staff had given us this information.

What evidence does the Press Council have, apart from the rhetorical assertions of Air New Zealand’s legal counsel, that staff were NOT told the flights were secret?

Investigate has sources who expressly claim the contrary, and now we have an Air New Zealand email to that effect.

The Council misdirected itself, I also respectfully suggest, as to the significance of the concessions the magazine made initially, both in regard to the appearance of fighter jets leading into Kuwait and to the secrecy issue. I conceded, purely as a conciliatory gesture, that the issue of secrecy may not have been an edict from Head Office, but could have been a localized flight briefing issue. That is not a repudiation of our claim that the flights were secret, and indeed the emails now indicate there was indeed a Head Office secrecy blanket in place – in sharp contrast to the substance of the airline’s complaint to you.

As to the cover montage, if the Council were to require the airline to obtain testimony from Air New Zealand flight crew you would find that at least one of the flights was parked at Kuwait between massive US military aircraft that “dwarfed” the New Zealand airliner. Had Investigate managed to have a photographer in place, the substance of the montage would not have been wildly different.

The Kuwait Airport doubles as Al Mubarak Air Base which, in case the Council is unaware, is an international gateway for US troops. Whilst the Air New Zealand plane was not flying US troops to the warzone, which we have acknowledged, they were flying allied combat troops to an airport used by the US military as a staging post for its Iraq operations. Again, our cover montage is not wildly inaccurate at all, and the Press Council have placed too much weight on the US troops angle, whilst overlooking the obvious US military connection at the destination airport. I should add the airline was flying US marines to join their base at Iwakuni.

The cover, in this sense, was representative of a range of possibilities. Did the airline carry US troops? Yes. Did it carry them to Kuwait? No. Did it carry combat troops destined for the US coalition in Iraq? Yes. Do civilian carriers landing at Kuwait always have air bridges? No.

During our hunt for possible photos of Kuwait and Darwin airports and troop flights, we did locate images from Getty where troop flights on civilian carriers were disembarking at Kuwait Airport on the tarmac, as below:

These photos gave the magazine comfort that its montage was not an unrealistic portrayal of the situation. This photo below is from Kuwait Airport, on a chartered troop flight.

The above was also taken at Kuwait Airport, as was this one:

And this flight originated from Kuwait International Airport:

Because of its admitted designation as a “highly sensitive” installation, Kuwait airport is subject to security scares much more regularly than other airports Air New Zealand travels to:

KUWAIT CITY, March 8, 2008 (AFP) – A hoax telephone call warning of a bomb in a suitcase forced the evacuation of two airplanes after they landed at Kuwait’s international airport on Saturday, an airport official said.

The first was a Saudia airline flight coming from Jeddah, and the second was a Kuwait Airways flight coming from Damascus, Issam al-Zamel, airport operations manager, told KUNA state news agency.

The planes were evacuated and searched as soon as they landed, as well as the luggage carried on both airliners, he said, but nothing was found.

Unless I am seriously mistaken, there is no actual “evidence” in front of the Press Council that disproves Investigate’s initial claim about fighter jets (or the corroborative statements made by TV3’s Campbell Live after making its own inquiries), so given the Council’s own advice to the magazine to verify claims, it would be helpful if the Council could indicate on what principled basis it ruled our story was inaccurate on this point?

Additionally, apart from Air New Zealand’s stated position, is there any independent evidence in front of the Press Council that proves Investigate’s montage is substantially wrong?

Air New Zealand is not entitled to a presumption of accuracy or the moral high ground merely because it is Air New Zealand.

I would ask the Press Council to revisit its earlier assessment of the magazine’s coverage.

We agreed we were wrong to say flying US troops into war. We have already resiled from that. But by implication and indeed open statement the story was about flying troops up to support the US war effort in Iraq, via Kuwait which is a US base. Had I realized the Council’s line of reasoning on the cover montage I would have explained it in more detail and included the photos above earlier.

If the cover line had stated, “flying troops up to a US war” it would have been factually unassailable. Air New Zealand makes too much of a largely semantic error, which I have pointed out previously.

We politely had agreed to differ with Air NZ on the secrecy and fighter jet issue. Given the existence of the Air New Zealand briefing emails slugged “CONFIDENTIAL” I hardly think the airline has a leg to stand on there, and unless the Council has proof that there were no fighter jets in the vicinity I’m uncertain as to how you can make a finding of factual inaccuracy in that regard either.

We are left with the issue of “fairness”, (which we accept is within the Council’s ambit but where we continue to believe that utilizing our news website is an appropriate fallback position in such rare cases as this), which should also be considered in the context of Air New Zealand misleading the Press Council over the secrecy issue.

Yours sincerely

Ian Wishart

PS: Incidentally, something I overlooked before…portions of the documentation relating to the flights were withheld under the provisions 6(a) and 6(b) of the Official Information Act.

Those provisions state:

6. Conclusive reasons for withholding official information

  • Good reason for withholding official information exists, for the purpose of section 5 of this Act, if the making available of that information would be likely—
    • (a) To prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the international relations of the Government of New Zealand; or
    • (b) To prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on a basis of confidence by—
      • (i) The government of any other country or any agency of such a government; or
      • (ii) Any international organisation; or

The cheek of Air NZ to state that these flights were not confidential is incredible. For the record, the refusal to provide documents under the provisions above was made on 5 October 2007, well after the flights had been publicized.