The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Nigel Jackson about a column by Phillip Adams in the Weekend Australian Magazine on 9-10 April 2011. The column described the late Eric Butler as having been a “truly evil man” and “Australia’s most virulent anti-Semite”. It also said: “If the word ‘traitor’ means anything Butler was a traitor, often investigated during World War II by stumblebum security people for his pro-Axis activities. He argued that Churchill, Roosevelt and John Curtin were ‘covert communists’, that then ally the Soviet Union was a ‘Jewish slave state … controlled by international Jewish financiers in New York'.” It also said that Mr Butler's "favourite theme [was] the evils of the Jewish race".
Mr Jackson complained that the description of Mr Butler as a traitor was inaccurate and deceitful because he served overseas in the Second AIF during the war and was one of a group of people whom the Reed Board of Inquiry described in 1944 as “loyal to His Majesty the King” and “actuated by a sincere desire to improve the lot of themselves and their fellow men”. Mr Jackson also complained that Mr Butler’s views were inaccurately portrayed as primarily anti-Semitic when in reality they were principally concerned with public service from a Christian orientation. Mr Jackson had expressed these concerns in a letter to the editor of the magazine but it was not published.
The magazine responded that the columnist was entitled to express his opinions on these matters. The assertion that Mr Butler was a traitor was based principally on the criticisms of Allied leaders referred to in the column and to a wartime censor’s statement that “the activities of [Mr Butler] and his assistants are being closely watched by the authorities. There is no doubt that the general trend of their propaganda is damaging to the financial side of the war effort”. The magazine said that, while "the evils of the Jewish race" may not have been Mr Butler's favourite theme, "it was at least one of his favourites". The magazine said it published two letters which criticised aspects of the column but constraints on space led it not to publish Mr Jackson’s letter.
The Council’s principles recognise the importance of free expression of opinion in columns of this kind. They also emphasise, however, that “relevant facts must not be misrepresented or suppressed”. This qualification is especially important where an allegation is of such grave misconduct as being a traitor and it is emphasised that the term “traitor” is being used in its strictest sense (which it is reasonable to interpret as meaning active treachery to one’s country in time of war). This contrasts with its looser or more colloquial usage in relation, for example, to mere expressions of disagreement with national policy or to acting against the interests of a particular person or group.
The Reed report distinguished carefully between expression of views which might weaken the war effort and, on the other hand, being actively disloyal, subversive or traitorous to one’s country. It concluded that a number of people, including Mr Butler, had engaged in the former type of activity (albeit motivated to a considerable extent by economic theories which they considered to be in Australia’s national interest). But, except for suspicions about one or two unnamed people, it explicitly exonerated them from the latter type of conduct and in doing so specifically mentioned the active war service of Mr Butler and other named people.
The Council has concluded that alleging Mr Butler was an active traitor to his country in time of war is an expression of opinion which, even if highly debatable, does not in itself contravene the Council’s principles. But failure to mention something which is so crucially relevant to the allegation as his military service during that war, including a hazardous overseas posting, contravenes the Council’s principles against misrepresentation or suppression.* This applies especially in the absence of endorsement for the allegation from the Reed report or other authoritative source. Accordingly, the complaint about the column is upheld on that ground.
The Council’s conclusion is different, however, in relation to the assertion in the column about Mr Butler's attitude towards "the Jewish race". By comparison with the allegation of being a traitor, these assertions were inherently less specific and the complainant has not identified any irrefutable fact which is of crucial significance to the truth or otherwise of the assertion. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint about the column itself is dismissed.
The Council has also concluded that the magazine should have published Mr Jackson's letter, which provided cogent evidence in relation to serious allegations against Mr Butler. The two published letters from other sources addressed aspects of the column which were unrelated to Mr Jackson’s concerns and arguably were of substantially less gravity. His letter was not inappropriately long, incoherent or intemperate. Accordingly, the complaint about failure to publish the letter is upheld.
*The original wording of this sentence referred to Mr Butler's war service as voluntary. The adjudication was not dependent on whether the service was voluntary and accordingly the reference has been omitted to avoid misunderstanding.
(not required to be published):
Unlike legal proceedings such as defamation, the purpose of the Council’s adjudication process is to express views about appropriate standards of journalism, not to consider awarding financial compensation to people who may have been damaged by some published material. Accordingly, the Council’s principles and processes apply irrespective of whether published allegations relate to a living or deceased person.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of General Principle 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed.”; and General Principle No 3: "Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication".