ROBIN JOHANSEN AGAINST THE LISTENER

Case Number: 817

Council Meeting: February 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Listener

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

A complaint against New Zealand Listener by Robin Johansen of Paraparaumu, has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council. Mr Johansen resigned as Deputy Secretary of Defence (Acquisition) in May 2000 to take up a senior position in the private sector.

On 19 and 26 August 2000 New Zealand Listener published two articles by Gordon Campbell about defence procurement. The starting point of the articles was comments by Ron Mark MP in Parliament on 5 July 2000. The articles criticised the Ministry of Defence's handling of the purchase of armoured personnel carriers and radios, relating these matters to the Project Sirius upgrade of Orion aircraft and other equipment issues. Mr Johansen, in his complaint to the Press Council, challenged the accuracy of aspects of the articles, but sought redress specifically in respect of the following two sentences "To his credit, new Defence Secretary Graham Fortune now seems to be trying to put the procurement process all for projects launched by the previous government - on a rational footing. Several personnel have gone from key acquisitions positions at the MoD this year."

The essence of the complaint is that the Press Council's Principles were infringed because of inaccuracy, and by failure to distinguish between comment and fact in the two sentences. "In constructing a paragraph which says that Mr Fortune seems to be trying to put the procurement process on a rational footing and then goes on to add the fact that 'several' people have left key acquisitions positions in the Ministry of Defence, the article established a causal link between two entirely disconnected issues. This is grossly misleading and has caused the community to believe that I was sacked." Mr Johansen said he was one of only two people who had left the division in the previous two years.

Mr Johansen supplied documents released under the Official Information Act, including an internal MoD memo from the Acting Secretary of Defence on 10 July 2000 which included these sentences: "You may have seen a newspaper report last week that stated that there had been sackings at the Ministry of Defence. No staff have been sacked. As you know, the Deputy Secretary (Acquisition), Robin Johansen, has resigned to take up a senior position in the private sector, and we are very sorry indeed to see him go."

In reply, the editor of New Zealand Listener said that no causal link between the two sentences was meant or implied. "In a compressed paragraph, Campbell was communicating the import of what Fortune had intimated - that staff turnover can sometimes enable a new broom to put his own stamp on processes that he only inherits but for which he is ultimately held responsible." The editor defended the claim that there had been several departures of acquisition staff from the Ministry. The newspaper report using the word "sackings", referred to in the internal MoD memo, had appeared in early July, so that the New Zealand Listener article of 19 August could not be accused of creating a perception about that. That article did not say there had been sackings, and did not name Mr Johansen. Several reasons for staff departures were accommodated by the words "have gone".

The Press Council accepts that it is an established fact that Mr Johansen was not sacked. It considers that the two sentences complained of cannot bear the weight of significance and blame that Mr Johansen attaches to them. It is straining the words "have gone" in the second sentence to say that they must mean that people had been sacked. Other remarks, made in other publications, cannot simply be imported into this particular piece of text.

It is regrettable that Mr Johansen did not respond to the editor's invitation to write a letter for publication. The editor said the magazine would have been happy to dispel any unintended reading of the article.

The complaint is not upheld.