The Case of Benjamin Joffe-Walt
When The Guardian's reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt went to Taishi village, he was guided by the activist Lu Banglie. Upon entering the village, the taxi was surrounded by unidentified men who then proceeded to assault Lu. Here was the most oft-quoted description coming from Joffe-Walt ('They beat him until he was lifeless'):
They pointed flashlights at us, and when the light hit Mr Lu's face, it was as if a bomb had gone off. They completely lost it. They pulled him out and bashed him to the ground, kicked him, pulverised him, stomped on his head over and over again. The beating was loud, like the crack of a wooden board, and he was unconscious within 30 seconds.
They continued for 10 minutes. The body of this skinny little man turned to putty between the kicking legs of the rancorous men. This was not about teaching a man a lesson, about scaring me, about preventing access to the village; this was about vengeance - retribution for teaching villagers their legal rights, for agitating, for daring to hide. They slowed down but never stopped. He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band.
The only question was whether Lu Banglie was already dead or near death. That was until Lu Banglie was found and now all hell has broken loose. Here is Chinese's blogger Anti's post on Benjamin Joffe-Walt.
In the evening, we just received a direct response from Lu Banglie in Zhijiang City, Hubei province. He is not only alive, but he has only mild injuries. His shoulder was scratched, his body aches all over and his eyes are slightly swollen. At the time of the beating, he passed out. He has been examined by a doctor that he trusts, and there are no real problems. He was transported home in a car by the Guangdong authorities. He is staying with a friend and he told the truth of what happened to the reporters.
Anti finds it impossible to reconcile the situation with Joffe-Walt's description: "He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band."
These are lies. No matter whether the 25-year-old Joffe-Walt was fantasizing out of fear or because his imagination was running wild, he is a liar as far as reporters are concerned. It is a blight on The Guardian to have such a correspondent in China.
If The Guardian does not dismiss such a correspondent and if The Guardian does not apologize and examine itself, then we can publicly say that insofar as China reporting goes, The Guardian is untrustworthy. Anytime that they report again, we will think back how this inflammatory "first-person eyewitness" account by Joffe-Walt deviated from the facts.
Therefore, I ask The Guardian to dismiss this liar for the honor of the media professionals. I ask my colleagues to support my proposal.
On October 11, Jonathan Watts wrote to explain what happened to Lu Banglie ("Activist found alive after beating by mob" with the sub-heading "Lu Banglie injured but recovering after treatment").
Lu Banglie, the Chinese democracy activist who was savagely beaten at the weekend, has been found injured but alive. Mr Lu has told the Guardian that he was battered unconscious and later driven hundreds of miles to his home town where he is now recuperating. ...
Mr Lu went missing on Saturday night after he attempted to take the Guardian's Benjamin Joffe-Walt into Taishi, a flashpoint in a growing wave of regional unrest that has challenged the authority of the Communist party. He was last seen lying unconscious on the side of the road.
Late on Monday, however, Mr Lu re-emerged from hospital in his home town of Zhijiang in Hubei province to tell his version of what happened after he was dragged out of the car by an angry mob.
This was enough to set Chinese blogger Anti off for a second post.
The report made by The Guardian's Beijing bureau chief Jonathan Watts in Guangzhou explained Benjamin Joffe-Walt's description ("He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band.") with a straight lie in the sub-heading "Lu Banglie injured but recovering from treatment."
Does The Guardian believe that it is the only newspaper in the world interviewing Lu Banglie? Yesterday, many friends persisted all the way until 10pm before speaking directly to Lu Banglie. The net result was that we all hate The Guardian. A certain Chinese-language newspaper prepared a 20,000-word 'blood-and-tears' special. Upon speaking to Lu in person, they had to dump the whole thing.
Treatment? Is getting a medical check-up at Zhijiang Hospital a form of treatment? What kind of treatment can bring someone with eyes fallen out of the socket, cut tongue, internal bleeding and broken neck ligaments back into "mild injuries" in a couple of days?
Enough already, The Guardian. You are really earning the contempt of your colleagues. For a long time, Xinhua and CCTV were the representatives of shameless media. But your lies today are even more damaging to the Chinese. In most foreign news coverage of China, the professional standard requires two independent sources of information to establish veracity. But when The Guardian reported on China this time, you only used the unverified "first-person" account of a liar. Furthermore, after this has been exposed, you attempted to hide your mistake.
The Guardian's error obviously has severely affected the Taishi village case and even other rights cases. Whenever a reader hears about another rights activist being beaten, they will automatically think about Joffe-Walt's fantasy. Lies cannot promote justice; they can only impede justice.
I am a democrat and I support the democratic movement in China. But I will express my anger in a professional manner against any exaggerated or fabricated reporting of the pursuit of democracy. I will not permit a crazy reporter, who once was a Baghdad human shield, to destroy the common ideals of media workers in China. The United Kingdom is not a wasteland for news coverage, because they have the excellent professionals at The Economist, Financial Times and BBC.
In days afterwards, the following came from The Guardian.
(The Guardian) Corrections and clarifications. October 13, 2005.
In a report headed 'They beat him until he was lifeless': How democracy activist in China's new frontline was left for dead after a brutal attack by a uniformed mob (front page, October 10), we said that Lu Banglie was so injured in the beating that "his eye [lay] out of its socket" and "the ligaments in his neck were broken". Subsequent reports have made it clear that Mr Lu's injuries were not as serious as had been stated. In particular, a report headed Chinese activist vows to continue, despite beating, page 3, yesterday, stated, after an interview with Mr Lu: "Although he was in pain from his neck, it was not broken and his eye did not come out of its socket." The readers' editor will write about this in his column on October 17.
(The Guardian) Seeing and believing in China. October 17, 2005.
On Thursday last week the Guardian carried the following note in its daily corrections column: "In a report headed 'They beat him until he was lifeless': How democracy activist in China's new frontline was left for dead after a brutal attack by a uniformed mob (front page, October 10) we said that Lu Banglie [a pro-democracy activist] was so injured in the beating that 'his eye [lay] out of its socket' and 'the ligaments in his neck were broken'. Subsequent reports have made it clear that Mr Lu's injuries were not as serious as had been stated. In particular, a report headed Chinese activist vows to continue, despite beating, page 3, October 12, stated, after an interview with Mr Lu: 'Although he was in pain from his neck, it was not broken and his eye did not come out of its socket.'" I added a note saying, in effect, that the huge disparity between these reports would be the subject of this column today.
The initial report containing what were quickly exposed as gross errors and exaggerations was written by the Guardian's newly appointed Shanghai correspondent, Benjamin Joffe-Walt. Mr Joffe-Walt is 25. His main experience as a journalist has been gained in six months working for a South Africa newspaper, This Day, until it ceased publication in November 2004, and an overlapping period as a stringer, a freelance correspondent, for a British newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph. For the latter he filed stories from all over Africa, including Darfur. He has won several awards: young journalist of the year from the Foreign Press Association in London, in November last year, and the CNN African print journalist of the year award in June this year. He has been runner-up in two other awards. He started work for the Guardian on September 1.
Five weeks into his contract, while deputising for the Guardian's China correspondent, Jonathan Watts, he went to Taishi in southern China, which was described in his report as "the hotspot of the growing rural uprisings". With him were a local driver, an interpreter who had travelled with him from Shanghai, and Lu Banglie. Mr Lu, who had undertaken to put them on the right road, insisted, according to Joffe-Walt, on going all the way to Taishi, despite being asked three times to leave the car. Joffe-Walt's report, available on the Guardian website, tells vividly what happened there. Mr Lu was pulled out of the car and severely beaten. The driver, the interpreter and Joffe-Walt locked themselves in the car for safety. Joffe-Walt was punched through the window. They were detained and questioned, and left convinced that Mr Lu was dead.
In Shanghai again 24 hours later Joffe-Walt filed his first-person eye-witness account. Indeed, working against a tight deadline on Sunday for Monday's edition, he filed 3,500 words in a graphic stream-of-consciousness narrative in which, in the greatly cut-down version that was published, he said: "My head was spinning. I was in a mixed state of shock at what had happened to Mr Lu and utter fear for my life."
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.
All witnesses agree that Mr Lu was severely beaten, and Mr Lu has confirmed that that was the case. In London, Joffe-Walt has been seen by a succession of Guardian editors. I think it is true to say that they have all developed some sympathy for Joffe-Walt, despite the fact that his report had threatened the credibility and integrity of the Guardian's reporting in China.
I have interviewed Joffe-Walt, mainly in two sessions, for a total of more than three hours and I am sure that it is right to stop short of the wholesale condemnation of him that the matter may appear to invite. Joffe-Walt having expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for the Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China, said: "This was a situation in which I honestly, for the first time in my life, thought I would die."
As a result of what he told me I urged him 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.
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.
(SCMP) Here Lies The Truth. By Simon Parry. October 19, 2005.
With only a bruise on his right elbow to show for the beating he was given by thugs in Guangdong, pro-democracy activist Lu Banglie is in a forgiving mood towards the British journalist who told the world he had been mutilated and left for dead.
"He seemed young and I don't think he was very experienced," said Mr Lu, 34, as he recovered from his ordeal with friends in Hubei province . "He was caught up in a very frightening situation. In those circumstances it is understandable that he got it wrong."
Benjamin Joffe-Walt's report - splashed on the front page of Britain's The Guardian newspaper on Monday last week - described in graphic detail how Mr Lu was apparently killed by a group of five to six men in Taishi, Guangdong, the scene of rural unrest.
Mr Lu had been accompanying Joffe-Walt and his translator when they were stopped and Mr Lu, a legislator from Hubei who has helped villagers try to fight for their legal rights, was dragged out of the taxi after being recognised by the mob.
In a shocking report, the 25-year-old reporter said he saw Mr Lu lying on the ground "his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted ... the ligaments in his neck were broken". It seemed a brutal indictment of the abuses of power in rural China - until Mr Lu appeared in his home province, very much alive and without any serious injuries, on the same day the sensational report in The Guardian was published.
He had been beaten unconscious, and bundled into a car and driven back to his home province, hundreds of kilometres away. Mr Lu has since undergone medical examinations and internal scans that reveal no lasting injuries.
So how could the journalist have misjudged the situation so gravely? Looking at copies of the newspaper's reports, Mr Lu said: "I was wearing a red shirt and it was dark. Maybe he saw the colour of my shirt and thought it was blood. As for my eye popping out, perhaps he just saw the reflection of the torches being shone in my eyes.
"His report is obviously false, but I believe it is the government's fault that things like this happen. If the government allowed journalists to report what is going on in these villages, these kind of false reports wouldn't appear. If they let people go freely into these places, people would know the truth."
Joffe-Walt's employers have been less generous in their appraisal of the report filed by the American former high school teacher who began working as the newspaper's Shanghai correspondent last month.
In a blunt article by the newspaper's own ombudsman on Monday, the newspaper said Joffe-Walt had been recalled to London and examined by a psychotherapist, who had concluded that at the time of writing, he had "lost touch with reality".
The article spoke of the reporter's "grave flaws" and "gross errors and exaggerations" and said his report had "threatened the credibility and integrity of The Guardian's reporting in China".
It emphasised Joffe-Walt's relative inexperience, saying: "His main experience has been gained in six months working for a South Africa newspaper ... and an overlapping period as a stringer [for] a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph."
The story of how the paths of two idealistic young men from hugely different backgrounds - one a western journalist and the other a Chinese activist - came to cross with dramatic results in the south of China is an intriguing and unlikely one.
As recently as 2003, Joffe-Walt was working as a high school teacher in Canada. He went to Baghdad as a human shield, one of a group of anti-war activists who tried to put themselves in danger's way to stop a US invasion.
Afterwards, he told his hometown paper in the US, the Philadelphia Daily News, that the experience was "very stressful" but that he would be prepared to go back and put himself in harm's way for the anti-war cause.
Joffe-Walt chose not to return, it seems, but instead headed for Africa, where he began a new career as a newspaper reporter, working first for South Africa's This Day newspaper and then as a stringer across Africa for The Sunday Telegraph.
He filed harrowing stories from across the continent, visiting flashpoints including Darfur and picking up an impressive brace of awards in the process - young journalist of the year from the Foreign Press Association in London and CNN African print journalist of the year in June this year.
Joffe-Walt's transformation from high school teacher to frontline war reporter took place at the same time as a sea change in Mr Lu's life. A farmer in Hubei, Mr Lu became increasingly disillusioned with the abuses of power in rural China and decided to fight for the reduction of taxes on poor farmers.
As his marriage broke down and his wife took their daughter, now seven, to live in a new home more than 20km away, Mr Lu became increasingly involved in his political activity, taking advantage of rural reforms to win a seat in 2003 as a provincial legislator.
"I got involved in politics because I saw how the lives of farmers are so hard and so bitter, and the local governments and village committees are so unreasonable," he said. "I wanted to change it."
He had been immersed in the fight for villager rights in Taishi for weeks before he met Joffe-Walt, two Saturdays ago. Standing in for The Guardian's China correspondent, Jonathan Watts, the young reporter went to Guangdong to report on the unrest.
They spent only a few hours together before the drama on a roadside near Taishi.
Joffe-Walt claims he asked Mr Lu to get out of the car three times before they stopped at a security roadblock, but Mr Lu said: "I reassured the reporter I would be OK. I told him I have a big life inside me ... I told him he didn't need to worry about my safety."
Reflecting on what happened to him, Mr Lu said: "I don't believe they were trying to kill me, because if I had died it would have caused a big controversy. They just wanted to scare me so I wouldn't go back again. But I will go back. I am not afraid."
Joffe-Walt returned to Shanghai the day after the attack, arriving just in time to catch the end of an opening party for his office - set up with a group of other reporters working for newspapers overseas and nicknamed "the writers' commune" by fellow journalists.
It would appear that he filed the report late on that Sunday night, Shanghai time. The Guardian said it arrived "only an hour before deadline, which left little time for interaction" and described his original copy as "3,500 words in a graphic stream-of-consciousness narrative".
After the story broke, events moved quickly. Joffe-Walt was summoned to a meeting in Hong Kong with The Guardian's diplomatic editor, Ewan MacAskill, who was flown out from London to interview him. Watts was meanwhile recalled from holiday and sent to interview Mr Lu and arrange for a medical examination.
Joffe-Walt was then flown back to London where The Guardian said he "expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for The Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China".
Journalists in Shanghai were meanwhile bemused at the saga of the young journalist who had only just arrived in the country and now appeared to be making one of the quickest exits on record, a day after his welcoming party.
One senior Shanghai-based journalist, who asked not to be named, said: "One of his colleagues said he had a flair for the dramatic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a journalist. But it seems that in this case he may have gone a bit too far."
Whether Joffe-Walt has a future with The Guardian remains to be seen. Monday's article announced that the British newspaper, which prides itself on its high standard of journalism, has to protect its own reputation but also has a "duty of care" for its young reporter.
What becomes of Joffe-Walt is a matter of relative indifference for Mr Lu. Although Joffe-Walt has been under a psychotherapist in London and suffered from what The Guardian describes as "traumatic distress", Mr Lu is facing up to much more real day-to-day dangers on the mainland.
After evading the security police who have him under surveillance to drive three hours to a meeting for this interview, Mr Lu said of his ordeal: "I am angry at what happened to me, but not surprised. It is something that cannot be avoided in the struggle for democracy in China. It is a price I have to pay."