Freelancer's false report 'inspired by fear'

The Guardian has decided not to terminate the contract of its freelance war correspondent despite the newspaper admitting “a huge disparity” between his published report and reality.

The freelance, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, had penned an article entitled ‘They beat him until he was lifeless’ after supposedly witnessing a pro-democracy activist pulled from his car, and then beaten by Chinese authorities in the village of Taishi.

In his report filed October 10, Mr Joffe-Walt told Guardian readers how the activist, Lu Banglie, had been sitting next to him when he was pulled from their vehicle and beaten so badly “his eye [lay] out of his socket, and “the ligaments in his neck were broken.”

Two days after his apparent demise, the Guardian reported Lu Banglie was alive and well - determined to continue his pro-democracy activities to the full.

Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor, subsequently explained that the freelancer’s report of the savage beating on October 10 “threatened the credibility of the Guardian’s reporting in China.” He admitted there was a "huge disparity" between the report and reality.

Contrary to Joffe-Walt’s claims, it also emerged Lu Bangle’s neck was not broken, nor had his eye come out of its socket, but in fact - medical examinations proved he had suffered “no serious injuries,” according to The Independent on Sunday.

Joffe-Walt was expectantly summoned in front of Guardian editors, where Mayes, according to his apology to readers, conveyed it was right to “stop short of the wholesale condemnation that the matter might appear to invite.”

The verdict is based on a premise close to the heart of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, which believes physical danger lends to a distorted version and perception of events.

“We need to distinguish between bad journalism and distressed journalism,” said Mark Brayne, its director and former BBC foreign correspondent.

Chris Elliot, managing editor of the Guardian, agrees that Joffe-Walt’s unprecedented experience would have caused the 25-year-old freelance moments of sheer terror.

“Ben saw people trying to get at them through the car window. It is not clear how well he could see what was going on outside, but he had never faced a situation like that before in his life,” he said.

Expectantly editors at rival newspaper, The Independent, are less convinced of the terror that supposedly confronted Joffe-Walt, citing the reporter’s inexperience as the overriding factor in creating the bogus report.

“Being in the thick of things makes it difficult to get what may have happened into perspective,” said Raymond Whitaker, foreign editor of the IoS.

“The usual problems are likely to be compounded when the reporter is inexperienced, as seems to be the case here.”

The Dart Centre’s Mark Brayne conceded, “Sometimes our instincts as human beings take over from our duty as journalists.”

Meanwhile, Alan Davies, director of the Institute for War and Peace, cautioned that journalists must not lose the reader’s trust otherwise reports of real trauma will be dismissed as fictitious.

Yet he added: “Good papers apologise and correct it [the mistake] as quickly as possible. I think the Guardian did that.”

Joffee-Walt, who won the Press Association’s young journalist of the year for his reporting in Africa, maintains he exaggerated Lu Banglie’s condition because he himself feared for his own life.


25th October 2005

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