MARTYN STEWART AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 801

Council Meeting: October 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
False Accusation
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld complaints against The New Zealand Herald brought by Martyn Stewart of Waitakere City.

Mr Stewart submitted in particular that a dialogue piece by Joe Bennett of 26 May and an editorial of 26 June, had unfairly condemned key members of the successful America's Cup squad who had decided to go over to foreign syndicates in preparation for the next challenge round in 2003. Mr Stewart also maintained, more generally, that this attitude towards some of the leading sailors, had caused the newspaper to fail to investigate the "secrecy surrounding the relinquishing of the administration of the last defence organisation to the new organisation". Although he acknowledged that nothing had been proved, he evidently believed that the financial affairs of Team New Zealand had been the cause of the departure of the best-known sailors. There were, he wrote, two sides to every story. "It is easy to attack the sailors as they are the visible and vulnerable ones. The real story is hidden by mystery and, presumably warranted, suspicion " It is imperative, Mr Stewart suggested, that such issues be investigated by the media. "The truth must be published!" He had written to the editor but had not had a response.

The editor of the Herald responded to Mr Stewart's arguments, first by commenting that they appeared to be based on an assumption that officers of Team New Zealand were guilty of some unspecified malfeasance, corruption or fraud" for which there was no evidence. Nor had such accusations been made by departing team members. For these reasons -- and because of allegations of "criminal" behaviour on the part of the syndicate, he had not authorised publication of Mr Stewart's letters. As for the claim that the Herald had not investigated the financial issues, the editor noted that his newspaper had called on Team New Zealand to "reveal its financial information and beneficial arrangements" in the face of unsubstantiated public allegations. Moreover, he maintained, the Herald and the Weekend Herald had "gone
to some lengths... to bring more transparency" to the financial structure including revealing "a Scandinavian-based trust registration that afforded a high degree of confidentiality."

The Press Council noted-- from clippings provided by the editor--that the Herald and Weekend Herald had published a range of articles on affairs at Team New Zealand (at least 12 between March and June). In particular Fran O'Sullivan on 22 May, had weighed up various insinuations about inadequate management, mishandling of the transfer of control from the old syndicate to the new, rumours about siphoning off profits, among other things. She found that a rival syndicate had helped muddy the waters and that stringent requirements for carrying over debt--which the managers of the new New Zealand syndicate would have had to take on--had helped the two highest profile New Zealanders decide to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited funding offered by overseas syndicates. A member of the incoming syndicate who had gone over the accounts had found nothing to suggest any siphoning off of profits.

The Press Council could find no evidence to support the contention that the Herald had not tried to get at the truth concerning the affairs of Team New Zealand. As the editor had noted it is in the end a "judgment call by that organisation as to the level of accountability it is prepared to acknowledge." The Council accepts that editors have finite resources for extensive investigatory journalism of the kind that would be required to pin down these questions.

The Press Council also accepted that the editor of the Herald had no case to answer on the separate issue of editorial comment on the sailors' decisions to abandon the New Zealand cause for employment with overseas syndicates. A newspaper clearly has every right -- more, responsibility - to articulate its own forthright position on a matter of such high public interest and concern to its readership. The same went for the views of columnists. The Council could not accept Mr Stewart's contention that such opinion constituted "abuse" of the individuals concerned.

Mr Stewart's complaints were not upheld.