ALLAN GOLDEN AGAINST STUFFAllan Golden complained about a report published on the stuff.co.nz website on 28 July 2008. The report concerned a dispute between Auckland International Airport and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board over reimbursement of expenses incurred in a takeover offer for the airport.
The complaint is not upheld.
Mr Golden first complained to the Fairfax Media Group (the owner of the stuff site) pointing out that the article omitted the information that the disputed expenses were largely fees paid to two companies.
In his view this aspect was important but had been “deliberately withheld” in order to conceal “windfalls” to the companies.
He alleged that the reason not to disclose this information was that someone in a senior management position within the Fairfax company had a close relationship with the firms.
After receiving a prompt reply, from the Group Online Editor for Fairfax NZ, which refuted his allegations and explained that the story had been published “in its entirety” as supplied by NZPA, Mr Golden made a formal complaint to the Press Council.
The basis for his complaint was still “misleading or misinforming by omission” (Principle 1) but now Mr Golden suggested that the omission was stuff.co.nz not following through with updated information once the names of the companies receiving the disputed fees became known. Mr Golden maintained his view that the reason for the lack of follow up was the personal wish of senior management within the Fairfax Group that this information be not published.
The Website’s Response
The Group Online Editor replied to the formal complaint to the Press Council by reiterating that there had been no such “omission” of detail in the initial story – the press release to NZX, on which the NZPA report was based, had been timed for the NZ stock market opening, and that had been during the night in Canada and comment from CPPIB had been unavailable.
The editor also pointed to other websites which had run similar stories without including the detail about the two companies who had been paid incentive fees.
The accusation that someone in senior management had exerted any influence on the reporting of this matter was firmly rejected.
Mr Golden repeated his argument – that stuff.co.nz had a clear obligation to follow up the initial report as soon as detail about the disputed incentive fees became available.
He added that the NZ Herald had published an update on its website and that both The Dominion Post and The Press had published the names of the companies involved when they provided further background to the dispute.
He again claimed that the reason for such lack of rigour in not following up this story, on the part of stuff.co.nz, was direct or indirect pressure exerted on the Fairfax journalists by senior management.
The Fairfax Online Editor countered that there is no such journalistic obligation to “update as new information comes to hand”. Here, the original report had been both fair and balanced and there was no need to provide another side to the story.
In fact, there was no “other side” as additional information only provided more detail, not another aspect of the story as a whole. The fresh detail was considered to be not newsworthy enough for a repeat.
She pointed out that Mr Golden argued editorial influence by senior management yet The Dominion Post and The Press, two daily newspapers that are part of the Fairfax group, later published the detail which Mr Golden saw as crucial. His argument that Fairfax journalists were under unfair pressure not to publish this information could not be sustained.
Discussion and Decision
In many instances there is an obligation to run updates as additional material becomes available. Such new information often gives a fresh viewpoint, delineates another aspect to a story, provides a vital counterbalance to an original report.
The Press Council has often noted that balance (and fairness, too) is frequently gained through such follow up articles, even at some time after the first report.
However, that is not the case here.
In this example, new material merely expanded on a matter of detail. New information that came to hand did not change nor counterbalance the meaning or the tenor of the original story.
Mr Golden may see this information as crucial, but the stuff website editor did not see it as newsworthy enough to merit publication, especially given that it would have been necessary to repeat at least some of the first report, if only as background.
The Council accepts that this was reasonable and understandable editorial practice and Mr Golden’s complaint that readers were misled or misinformed by omission is not upheld.
The Press Council also considers that his allegations of editorial interference lack substance.
Here, the Online Editor’s point is telling. Apparently, according to the complainant, journalists working for the Fairfax-owned stuff website were pressured not to publish information, yet The Press and The Dominion Post, two of Fairfax’s leading papers later published this information i.e. the names of the two companies that received incentive payments.
Further, at one point in his complaint, Mr Golden insinuated that NZPA was also not independent from Fairfax and may also have been pressured (along with stuff.co.nz journalists) to omit this material. For example, he said his suspicions were raised by NZPA and Fairfax both having Boulcott Street addresses. He wondered if they might be in the same office.
Fairfax NZ does own shares in NZPA, along with many New Zealand newspaper and media companies, but NZPA is managed independently and is responsible for and employs its own staff. NZPA is located in a different building to Fairfax NZ.
The complainant’s various allegations about editorial interference are rejected.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Kate Coughlan and Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.