Saturday, April 01, 2006

Editorial: Credibility is price of selling story

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will have reflected this week on a lapse of judgment made by one (or more) of its officials when word of Harmeet Sooden's release by hostage-takers in Iraq was conveyed to his family in Auckland. Family members wanted financial assistance to go to the Middle East to greet 33-year-old Mr Sooden when he emerged from his ordeal. Someone in the ministry relayed that request to TVNZ and TV3.

Inevitably one of the television news services took the bait. TVNZ reportedly paid about $14,000 in air fares and accommodation for Mr Sooden's father, Dalip, and his brother-in-law, Mark Brewer, to accompany its reporter and film crew to Dubai, where the Canadian Air Force was to put Mr Sooden on a flight to Auckland.

It is not known precisely what undertakings the family members gave TVNZ in return, and Foreign Affairs probably didn't want to know. Agreeing the ministry made an "error of judgment", Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen told Parliament the officials had advised the family against making such a request. Nevertheless, they passed it on.

In the event. TVNZ got nothing in Dubai. The Canadian Air Force allowed Dalip Sooden an hour alone with his son before duly putting their charge on a plane to New Zealand. When Harmeet Sooden arrived in Auckland on Monday, his father, brother-in-law and the TVNZ crew were still in Dubai with flight problems.

Whatever the details of their deal with TVNZ, Harmeet Sooden is said not to be bound by it. He offered little comment to reporters on his return and asked for time and space to recover quietly with his family and friends. That he received. He discussed his traumatic experience for the first time in public yesterday, at a press conference open to all media. If Mr Sooden is wise, he will maintain an open-handed attitude and ensure there can be no suggestion he is turning his cause to profit.

He will be aware now, if he was not before, that public sympathy for his cause is tenuous at best. "Who cares about this so-called New Zealander Harmeet Sooden and his idiotic pacifist group?" wrote Ritchie Rutherford of Pukekohe in a letter typical of many to the Herald. "People such as this get themselves into trouble and prove they are a burden on the rest of us. They should be presented with the bill for the rescue and banned from sojourns again into hellholes like Iraq."

Another, from Eric Richards of Newmarket, declared: "I have lost all sympathy with people taken as hostages and their grieving families now that one lot has sold out to one group of the news media."

Mr Sooden has an important story to tell. Foolhardy as his Iraqi visit may have been, it is as close as any New Zealand resident has come to the worst of the terror reigning in Iraq. He went there as an opponent of the Western military occupation, indeed of all military action, and was seized by an Iraqi group who murdered one of his fellow captives. That experience would be enough to challenge the preconceptions of most people.

He can give an insight to the attitudes of those creating so much havoc and prolonging the occupation. It would be a pity if he withheld some of those insights for fear that they might be useful to the occupying forces or out of sheer gratitude to captors who spared his life.

Equally, it would be a pity if he decided to talk for a financial consideration. His credibility would suffer, as credibility usually does, when a story has to justify a price. The Foreign Ministry should have reminded Mr Sooden's relatives that the public paid for its efforts for him and it would be better not to leave the public with a sour taste.

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