Dominion Post Editor Ignored MFAT Harmeet Sooden Cartoon Warnings
By the Alastair Thompson and Kevin List
Now that Auckland student Harmeet Sooden is safe Scoop can reveal the details of something that has been sitting in the Scoop in-tray for a month or two.
Earlier this year using the Official Information Act Scoop obtained a copy of the notes provided to MFAT boss Simon Murdoch before he phoned Dominion Post Editor Tim Pankhurst in his unsuccessful attempt to persuade the newspaper not to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) which were causing so much controversy in the Middle East.
A photograph of the talking point notes appears below.
These notes were also circulated to NZ Embassies at the time. In a covering note accompanying them MFAT official Ross MacFarlane notes:
"These are for your information only – we need to protect the reference to hostages. The talking points are not for dissemination."
And it is for this same reason that Scoop has till now not published this information.
As you can see the first reason given by MFAT
for not publishing the Prophet Mohammed cartoons was not -
as was reported at the time - the threat to NZ's Trade
interests but rather:
"That offence could seriously increase the risk to the four hostages in Iraq, and in particular Harmeet Sooden. If New Zealand was believed to have offended the Muslim world through publication of the cartoons here, Mr Sooden's hostage takes may distinguish him from other captives."
Scoop today contacted Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst to inquire what he had made of this advice at the time. He said he had never seen a copy of the written notes prepared by MFAT.
Mr Pankhurst confirmed that Sooden had been mentioned in his conversation with Mr Murdoch. So far as he could recall the other issues mentioned included trade and a potential threat to NZ forces operating in Afghanistan.
From recollection his response to the warnings about Harmeet Sooden was to think that MFAT had been "drawing an awfully long bow".
"Especially given that [newspapers in] 25 countries had already published the cartoons."
Mr Pankhurst further described MFAT's advice as "alarmist". "If we had realistically thought that [danger to Mr Sooden] was the case we wouldn't have published," he said.
Finally Mr Pankhurst pointed to the fact that Harmeet's family themselves had told media the following day – in particular the NZ Herald - that they did not believe that the publication of the cartoons had endangered Mr Sooden.
Mr Pankhurst said he did not believe the NZ Herald's editors had received any advice from MFAT regarding Mr Sooden being potentially placed in danger by the publication. They hadn't been advised by Mr Murdoch because they had not intended to publish the cartoons.