ALLAN HUBBARD AGAINST THE PRESSAllan Hubbard complains, through his solicitor, that an article in The Press on 9 December 2010 was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. The complaint is upheld
The front-page article was under the bold headline ‘Arrest today’ in Ponzi-Type Fraud. A photograph of Mr Hubbard was displayed prominently below the headline with a caption clearly identifying him. The article noted that the business person facing arrest remained a mystery; the SFO was not ruling out South Canterbury businessman Allan Hubbard, but Hubbard said he thought it was unlikely; referred to the SFO investigation into Mr and Mrs Hubbard and their investment companies and a number of charitable trusts; quoted the Chief Executive of the SFO as saying he would like to have the Hubbard investigation wrapped up by Christmas; quoted Hubbard who said that he had been given no indication that charges would be laid; and said that when the Chief Executive was asked if he could rule out Hubbard, he replied “no comment”.
The following day on page 3 The Press under the heading Life Savings Lost By Terminally Ill Investors in Ponzi ‘Fraud’ noted that an Auckland couple had been arrested in an alleged $15 million Ponzi type fraud scheme and gave details of them.
The basis of the complaint is that Mr Hubbard “strongly considers that readers would draw an inference that he was due to be arrested for a Ponzi-type fraud”. It notes that at no stage has there been an allegation that Mr Hubbard was involved in a Ponzi-type fraud. Nor was there any possibility that the SFO was going to arrest him for a Ponzi-type fraud. It claims that the publication was irresponsible and breached the Council’s guidelines in respect of an accurate fair and balanced publication.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Press’s position is that the article on the front page on 9 December 2010, when read as a complete package, did not have the meaning alleged by Mr Hubbard. It quoted Mr Hubbard at length stating that he did not believe he was facing imminent arrest.
The editor notes that The Press could be found to have committed an inadvertent design error that led to the impression gained by Mr Hubbard; and that such “an error would be unfortunate especially since the Night Editor endeavoured to achieve the exact opposite.” It was the belief of the Night Editor that readers would take at face value Mr Hubbard’s quote that he did not think he was the person who would be arrested. The editor said that “essentially the aim was to give readers a range of possibilities, when people might have assumed it was Mr Hubbard had we not included the quotes”. The statement that the SFO refused to rule out Mr Hubbard was thus balanced by Mr Hubbard’s own comments.
The editor expresses concern at the manner in which the complaint had been pursued. He was unaware of Mr Hubbard’s concerns when the follow up article, which appeared the next day, was written. He alleges that it was a bit disingenuous to complain about the paper’s behaviour when it had not properly been notified of an issue, nor then given further opportunity to discuss whether a further clarification was necessary.
While it is correct that there was some balance in the article, the issue is one of perception. The Council’s view is that many readers would have formed the view that Mr Hubbard was the person to be arrested. The emphasis in the article was on Mr Hubbard, and his photo would lead readers to believe that Mr Hubbard was the person being referred to. Many readers would have believed that The Press knew who the person about to be arrested was. In the circumstances this was unfair on Mr Hubbard and carried an inference which was incorrect.
While it is not necessary to comment on the allegation of a disingenuous complaint, the Council does not see that this was the case. Mr Hubbard’s solicitor sent an email to The Press on the date of publication. The email was addressed to the PA of the chief reporter. It was not seen by the editor before the follow-up article on the following day was written. However it is not accepted that Mr Hubbard can be said to be disingenuous in the circumstances. The damage was done when the article of 9 December was published.
The Council upholds the complaint on the grounds that the article, together with the photograph, conveyed an inaccurate inference and was unfair to Mr Hubbard.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.