ALAN MCROBIE AGAINST THE SUNDAY NEWS

Case Number: 632

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 1996

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday News

A complaint by Alan McRobie of Christchurch against the Sunday News has been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Mr McRobie complained over a news item published in the Sunday News on 11 August, in which it was claimed three former New Zealand Cricket staff “are understood” to have taken out grievance cases against the sports body for unfair dismissal. Mr McRobie was named as one of those who had left the employ of NZ Cricket, where he had been working as a junior cricket administrator. The report,. written by Campbell Mitchell, went on to say: “It is understood Mr McRobie this week received a successful judgment for a grievance case.”

Mr McRobie insists that when telephoned by the reporter, he had in fact declined to comment, other than to say his departure from NZ Cricket was “amicable.” His conversation with the reporter was very brief, but on the basis of it, the reporter had drawn inferences which had no basis in fact. First his departure from NZ Cricket could not be “construed” as being a dismissal, let alone an unfair one. Secondly no requirement of silence on his part was ever sought by NZ Cricket as a condition of cessation of employment. Thirdly, he did not “refuse to comment” as the newspaper suggested. Mr McRobie said he took “the strongest possible exception” to his name being included in a story that was so factually inaccurate, and he sought a retraction from the newspaper.

Suzanne Chetwin, editor of the Sunday News in her response to the Press Council, disputed that the news item was “irresponsible” and asserted that the reporter acted in a proper way. She said that when the reporter telephoned, Mr McRobie could have indicated that the reporter’s information was wrong. She also argued that if Mr McRobie had used the phrase that his departure from NZ Cricket was “amicable” that would have been included in the story. Finally, the Sunday News accepted that while it disputed the McRobie version of the telephone conversation, it felt he was entitled to have his view brought to attention and published a letter from him, though in abridged form, in its letters to the editor column in the subsequent edition of the paper on 18 August.

As the editor noted, there was considerable public interest in the subject of NZ Cricket at the time the Sunday News prepared its news item, and it was entitled to probe the issue of dismissals. But where it raised the question of unfair dismissals, the matter became one of acute sensitivity and required very careful treatment. The newspaper said in its headline “Staff Go Into Bat: Workers Claim Unfair Dismissal.” After that declaration, it immediately began a retreat, saying in the introduction that “three former NZ Cricket staff are understood to have taken out grievance cases against the sports body for unfair dismissal.” It relied on a statement by sacked national coach Glenn Turner that three people had personal grievance cases against NZ Cricket. But it did not provide any supporting evidence for suggesting that the cases were for “unfair dismissal.” Neither in the article, nor in its subsequent response to Mr McRobie did the newspaper advance anything substantive on that point. While Mr McRobie was given “every opportunity to comment on the piece” as the newspaper said, the onus was not on him to demonstrate that the reporter’s information was wrong.

The Sunday News in publishing Mr McRobie’s abridged letter failed to satisfy him. That is understandable, since it left the implication that the newspaper stood by its original story, without advancing any justification.

The Press Council upholds Mr McRobie’s complaint, first on the grounds that sufficient verification of the claims in the story was not provided, and secondly that the newspaper should have responded less cavalierly than it did to Mr McRobie’s grievance.