In what should be the final word on the Benjamin Joffe-Walt reportage on the beating of activist Lu Bangli, the UK Guardian newspaper has issued one of the strongest criticisms of a reporter that I have seen. Not only was his report grossly inaccurate, readers’ editor Ian Mayes says, but the reporter was suffering from temporary insanity.The paper also explains how the report slipped through more rigorous editing, and notes that Joffe-Walt was recalled to London (not, as earlier said, that he had left China for security reasons):
He filed only an hour before deadline, which left little time for interaction with the desk. He was not specifically questioned by the desk in London about some of the details in his description. He was not asked how far he was from Mr Lu when the latter was being beaten. He was not asked how clearly he could see the things he was reporting he had seen. At the same time Joffe-Walt failed to communicate to the desk the condition he was in then and was still in at the time of writing. He was still convinced at that time that Mr Lu was dead. I shall come back to that.
When it became clear that Mr Lu was alive and his injuries were not consistent with what had been described, relief among readers over his survival was mixed with serious concern about the grave flaws thus revealed in the report. The Guardian recalled Joffe-Walt to London, via Hong Kong where he was interviewed by the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Ewen MacAskill, who had been sent there for the purpose. MacAskill and Watts, who had been recalled from leave, have spoken to all the people who were with Joffe-Walt in Taishi, including Mr Lu. The Guardian arranged for Mr Lu to have a medical examination and scan. They revealed no serious injuries.
I urged (Joffe-Walt) to contact Mark Brayne of the Dart Centre (see below), a former BBC correspondent, now a psychotherapist specialising in journalism and trauma (Joffe-Walt had already been examined at a clinic at the suggestion of the Guardian). Exceptionally, I had Joffe-Walt’s permission to talk to Mark Brayne, with the latter’s agreement, after their interview. Mr Brayne has no doubt that the situation, the mixture of fear and shame with which Joffe-Walt witnessed Mr Lu being beaten while he himself was locked in the car, contributed to a state of traumatic distress which he was still experiencing when he wrote his account. Mr Brayne said, "The intensity was quite unusual but in Benjamin’s particular context it does make sense." In this state, he said, Joffe-Walt had lost touch with reality.
UPDATE: The Travellers’ Tales blog views the temporary insanity defense with some skepticism:
The Guardian’s readers editor has responded
to the furore over Benjamin Joffe-Walt’s Oct. 10 dispatch from Taishi.
It’s impossible to read this without feeling at least some sympathy for
the reporter in this situation. But it also creates an uneasy
sensation. This is clearly an appeal for sympathy, rather than just an
admission of error with an explanation of extenuating circumstances.
The resort to a pseudo-medical diagnosis is reminiscent of the defense
of criminals who introduce expert witnesses to show that their behavior
was beyond their control. Wouldn’t it have been better simply to lay
out what happened, and let readers sympathize or not? Or are we being
Simon, as well, isn’t satisfied:
Ian Mayes concludes The
Guardian clearly has to protect its reputation. It also recognises a
duty of care to Mr Joffe-Walt. The two things are not incompatible.
No, they’re not incompatible at all. Where the Guardian has fallen down
was throwing a 25 year old novice into one of the more dangerous
reporting assignments without adequate care or supervision. If we’re
sharing out blame, it’s the Guardian itself that needs to shoulder a
significant part of the responsibility. Don’t hold your breath.
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Mao: The Unknown Story - by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday:
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October 18th, 2005 at 12:31 am
I have commented in your previous post “It is really not about Joffe-Walt, but how the Guardian handle the aftermath.”
I am rather disappointed by the Guardian now, as you and Simon reasoned. The title of your post said all.
But I would prefer to let this matter settle and move on.
Anti posted a commentless straight translation of Ian Mayes. I suppose he somehow agree with us but is willing to put a fullstop to it.
October 19th, 2005 at 5:12 am
“Anti”, after some discussion and reflection on the cultural difference between the understanding of humanitarianism vs the requirement of social responsibility upon an individual human, admitted he should “reflect that he was too harsh on BJW”