A reporter who got too near the action

A young correspondent has embarrassed 'The Guardian' with a story that was exaggerated and false. But did he have an adequate excuse?
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The Independent Online

It happened like this. On 10 October, The Guardian carried, under Mr Joffe- Walt's byline, a sensational report entitled "They beat him until he was lifeless". The "he" was Chinese pro-democracy activist Lu Banglie who had taken Joffe-Walt to the village of Taishi, south of Guanghzhou, where locals have been protesting against a corrupt local communist party chief.

The Chinese government is concerned that Taishi's anger might provoke a domino effect in a region riddled with land-related corruption. It has sought to restrict reporting on the village. But Joffe-Walt reported encountering more than official resistance. He described seeing Lu Banglie pulled from the car they were sharing and so badly beaten that "his eye [lay] out of its socket" and "the ligaments in his neck were broken". It soon emerged there was, Mayes said, "a huge disparity" between the report and reality.

Lu Banglie's neck was not broken, nor had his eye come out of its socket. Indeed, just two days after publishing the tale of his apparent demise, The Guardian reported that Lu Banglie was alive and determined to continue his pro-democracy activities. A subsequent medical examination, arranged by the newspaper, revealed that he had "no serious injuries". Ian Mayes reported that, among Guardian readers, "Relief that Lu Banglie had survived was mixed with serious concern about grave flaws in the correspondent's report."

Joffe-Walt was recalled to London where he was interviewed by Guardian editors. Mayes wrote that it was appropriate to "stop short of the wholesale condemnation of him that the matter might appear to invite". He concluded that The Guardian's duty to protect its own reputation was "not incompatible" with "a duty of care to Mr Joffe-Walt".

Benjamin Joffe-Walt is 25. He joined The Guardian in September. Before that he won the Foreign Press Association's young journalist of the year award for work in Africa. He says his exaggeration of Lu Banglie's condition occurred because he feared he himself was about to die. In the circumstances, is The Guardian's response sensible, balanced and compassionate?

Mark Brayne, the director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, says it may well be. Brayne, a former BBC foreign correspondent, has counselled Joffe-Walt and cannot comment on the case. But he believes it is possible for a correspondent facing physical danger to believe a distorted version of events.

"We need to differentiate between bad journalism and distressed journalism. Extreme traumatic stress can cause psychotic moments where an individual who fears for his life will see things that are happening and reinterpret them. The eyes see blood and the brain sees a smashed-in head. With the brain in survival mode it makes evolutionary sense for it to do that."

The caveat, as Brayne admits, is that the instinct to embellish reality in the interests of survival can be hard to separate from an over-ambitious reporter's willingness to push a story.

Chris Elliot, the managing editor of The Guardian, is certain that Joffe-Walt is not guilty of that. "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 was terrified."

The foreign editor of The IoS, Raymond Whitaker, says there can be a problem when a reporter puts himself too much at the centre of the story. "Being in the thick of things," says Whitaker, "makes it difficult to get what may have happened into perspective. The usual problems are likely to be compounded when the reporter is inexperienced, as seems to be the case here."

Brayne confirms that mistakes are often a matter of inexperience rather than malice, but adds: "In some places, the context can be so complicated that even an experienced new arrival can get things completely wrong."

Alan Davis, a director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, agrees, but he warns: "Journalists must remember that if they lose the trust of readers they will not be believed when they report real trauma. But good papers apologise and correct it as quickly as possible. I think The Guardian did that."

Brayne says "journalists and their editors need to be trauma-literate. You need to have been there to understand just how it can lead to misinterpretation. Sometimes our instincts as human beings take over from our duty as journalists."

Elliot says: "Joffe-Walt feels terrible about this. The Guardian has no plans to terminate his freelance contract."

MEDIA DIARY

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All change

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Midweek censorship

Those who want to catch up on the great radio scrap between Darcus Howe and Joan Rivers (who claimed Howe had accused her of racism) can rerun it all on some websites, but not on the BBC's own site, which has seen fit to excise some of the rabid exchange. It's the bit that's embarrassing for the BBC. Host Libby Purves says: 'I have great sympathy with both sides but I am starting to feel like Oprah.' Rivers: 'Both sides? Then you're a racist. How stupid for someone to say that. Now please continue, but don't you dare call me that. Son of a bitch.' Not only was that bit taken out of the BBC transcript, but it has been taken from the BBC listen again audio version on the internet. Someone at the BBC has brought out the blue pencil.

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